Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
Director/writer Adam Brooks’ bittersweet romantic tale is a cut above most other “date films” in that it deviates a little from the usual boy meets girl formula. It is a boy meets three girls tale, with all three women proving to be admirable candidates to wed our hero, plus it presents us with a man’s journey toward wisdom.
When we first see Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) he is opening the large envelope containing the papers that will finalize his divorce once he signs them. Then, realizing that he must dash off to school because it his day to pick up their ten year-old daughter Maya Hayes (Abigail Breslin), he sets off through the crowded streets of Manhattan. The school lobby is a bee-hive of dazed parents trying to answer the questions of their children, who have just emerged from a sex education session. Maya also has a million questions, the most insistent of which is how did he meet “my mom.” When Will objects to her using “my,” Maya responds that since he and her mom are getting a divorce, he can no longer claim her, she is “my mom.” He at first refuses, but she persists right up to bed time, so he agrees—but he will use fictitious names for the women he knew during the period when he met her mom. Maya likes the idea, declaring it “a love story mystery.”
And so begins the long tale, interspersed by Maya’s comments and questions, that begins in 1992 with Will and his sweetheart Emily (Elizabeth Banks) in Madison, Wisconsin. Will is leaving for New York City to work on the Clinton presidential campaign in that city, despite Emily’s misgivings. As he leaves, she gives him a package to give to an old college roommate living in New York. Will is quickly disabused of any ideas of an important role at campaign headquarters, his chores being to get coffee, copies of documents, and supplying the bathrooms with toilet paper, none of which he is proficient at. He rooms with fellow campaign worker Russell McCormack (Derek Luke) and exchanges quips with copy machine operator April (Isla Fisher), one of the few workers paid on an hourly basis. Appalled that she has no interest in politics, he tries to convince her of the need to choose a serious purpose in life. He looks up Emily’s former roommate, now budding journalist Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), student and lover of her thesis advisor Hampton Roth (Kevin Kline), the latter a famous teacher, author and lecturer. Each woman that we meet possesses many good qualities, so as her father describes his encounters with one, Maya wonders if this is her mother.
As Will sorts out matters of the heart he also is dealing with his growing disillusionment with the man whose campaign he had been working on. We see numerous TV clips of Bill Clinton’s affairs and his infamous parsing of the word “is.” This disillusionment continues when Will and his friend Russell form a partnership and take on the campaign of a candidate for the governorship of New York, only to discover the man is not the champion of integrity they had thought him to be. One of the women in his life is the agent for revealing this to the world.
We, along with Maya, do eventually learn who her mother is (though I suspect you will figured this out long before Maya does), and this is followed by a beautifully poignant scene in which the little girl sits on a park bench watching her estranged parents talk just out of ear range. The expression of longing on her face, fueled by the hope that they just might be reconciling was painful for me because I was about her age and shared the same hope when my parents were going through a divorce. We see at this point that Abigail Breslin’s endearing performance in Little Miss Sunshine was no fluke.
We do not see any scenes of the marriage before the break-up, so the film leaves us to conjecture as to why two such charming persons reached their decision to divorce each other. This is not a film that teaches us anything about how to make a marriage work, and its secularity is such that there is no clue as to how faith in general, and belief in Christ in particular, might help. Despite this lack, the film touches us at a deep level, and will be one that you will remember for a long time.
For reflection/Discussion In order to raise some issues there definitely are spoilers in this section.
1) What has been your experience with divorce, either as a child or as an adult? Will and his ex-wife seem to have been able to part on a basis amicable enough to share custody of Maya: what does this suggest about their maturity? Compare this to films such as Kramer Vs. Kramer.
2) How is Maya sometimes shown as possessing a wisdom sometimes found in children? Despite this, would you be as frank as Will seems to be in talking with your child about your romantic past?
3) Although the aftermath of Maya’s sex education class is played for our amusement, the issue is important: what was your experience of being introduced to the subject of “the birds and the bees,” as it was euphoniously called when I was a child? (My parents never could bring themselves to talk with me about sex, my mother suggesting that I check out a book on the subject at the library!) Are you old enough to recall when the subject was considered “dirty” ? What seems to be the attitude in this film?
4) How does Maya react to the revelation that her dad smoked and engaged with three women? Have you had a similar experience in discovering that your parents had clay feet?
5) What do you think of each of the women in Will’s life? What qualities do they possess that could have made them a suitable wife for Will and a mother for Maya? What do you think of April’s independence of mind? Of Summer’s career choice—was her writing the article about the gubernatorial candidate just a betrayal, or was it also a matter of journalistic commitment?
6) What do you think Will learns about putting his trust in men of power? (See Psalm 146:3 for a Biblical view.) How is his a journey toward wisdom?
7) How did you feel when Maya watched her father and mother talking in the park? What does her face express? How might the film have developed at that point? (Compare it to The Parent Trap.) 8) Although the film refuses to take the easy way out, how does it still fulfill the expectations we have for a romantic tale? Was the ending satisfying or not for you? How do we see that the woman who ultimately becomes Will’s wife has also journeyed toward wisdom by her choice of a vocation? What does her work at the conclusion of the film reveal about this?