Definitely, Maybe (PG-13)

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Among the surprisingly not-that-bad early 2008 offerings, "Definitely, Maybe" is a movie that shatters all kinds of lowly expectations and practically reinvents the chick flick. While containing all of the ingredients of that often-dubious genre, it takes far more chances than it should and comes out on the winning side of most of its gambles.

The much-maligned Ryan Reynolds stars as Will, an unapologetic liberal who leaves his native Wisconsin for New York to work as a lackey for Bill Clinton's run for the presidency. Will assures his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) that this gig will be, at most, two months long and he'll be back before she knows he's gone.

Once in New York, Will develops a platonic relationship with a paid, nonpolitical assistant (Isla Fisher) and later, a bohemian writer (Rachel Weisz) who is romantically involved with a Hemingway-inspired novelist (an impressive and uncredited Kevin Kline).

The movie opens in the present day, where Will works as a mostly unhappy advertising executive about to make his divorce official while trying to explain the history of he and his soon-to-be ex-wife's romance to his overly inquisitive daughter, Maya (Abigail Breslin). The reticent Will reluctantly agrees to accommodate Maya, with the stipulation he change the names of her three possible mothers and leave it up to her to decide exactly who is who.

This welcomed, imaginative storytelling device changes the entire complexion of the movie and takes it from being just another disposable romantic comedy/drama into a riveting and completely enthralling mystery.

Writer-turned-director Adam Brooks ("Beloved," "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason") gets dangerously close on many occasions into turning the whole thing into an overly complicated episode of "Murder, She Wrote" or "Nancy Drew," yet it all pans out in the end. Brooks walks a fine tight-rope between the terminal cutesy and the highbrow cerebral and only slightly loses his balance.

An actor with an inordinately huge bad-luck streak in choosing previous roles, Reynolds hits all of his emotional and dramatic marks here. His Will character must juggle professional concerns, multiple romantic interests and fatherly duties while not looking like a cad, player or distracted workaholic. Reynolds does this brilliantly while never once sacrificing the audience's sympathy or empathy. Women will totally adore this character, and men will appreciate his ability to do the right thing while not ever coming across as a wimp or a sellout.

Hats off also to Banks, Fisher and Weisz, who all have to appear as both protagonists and antagonists at various points and never give too much away. They and Reynolds all play characters with strong convictions, noticeable faults and universally recognizable shortcomings. They're real people. We can relate to every one of them immediately and hang on to their every word, glance, action or reaction.

This is an incredibly endearing, clever and emotionally mature movie that will take every viewer by surprise. It ends on a bittersweet note, but one that is overflowing with authentic uplift and a nod toward a reality we rarely ever see in mainstream movies. (Universal)

E-mail Michael Clark at clarkwriter@mindspring.com.