Sonke Wortmann's "Maybe . . . Maybe Not," said to be Germany's biggest box-office hit ever, is the latest in a cycle of scintillating '90s comedies that recall the timeless wit and spirit of that onetime Berliner Billy Wilder. Like France's all-time box-office champ, "The Visitors," which opened last week, "Maybe . . . Maybe Not" reminds us that it is still possible to be mainstream and sophisticated at the same time. And in matters of sex and love Wortmann's movie is as tonic as a breath of fresh air.
It opens hilariously, as Doro (Katja Riemann), a waitress in a swanky Cologne nightclub, catches her waiter-boyfriend Axel (Til Schweiger) having sex with a customer in the ladies' room. Thrown out of Doro's apartment, Axel, in looking for a place to crash, winds up accepting an invitation to stay from Norbert (Joachim Krol), who happens to be gay.
Norbert is a kindly, steady, ordinary-looking man whereas Axel is a dreamboat with Dietrich cheekbones, a Kirk Douglas dimple in his chin and a great build. The sensational looks that make it difficult for Axel to be faithful to Doro are enough to cause Norbert to swoon. What's more, Axel is sweet-natured, easygoing and secure enough in his masculinity to accept Norbert's friendship. He even seems to be secure enough to be able to accept a romantic overture from Norbert.
Like all classic farces, "Maybe . . . Maybe Not" is thick with complications, but what it has to say is clear enough: that if a straight man should happen to have a sexual experience with a gay man, that hardly means he's no longer straight; that love can be stronger than sex; that gays and straights can actually be friends; and finally, that forgiveness and understanding, coupled with a sense of new-found maturity and responsibility, are ever the answers, especially when true love is involved.
To make such a list is to be impressed by how much Wortmann gets across without ever stating anything directly--just by placing a straight man with a gay man and his friends in their world and by showing how a perfectly intelligent modern woman, already faced with a sometimes unfaithful lover, can experience a burst of homophobia when she considers the possibility--and it's only a possibility--that her latest competition may in fact be male, which for her is understandably the last straw.
At any rate, Wortmann, beyond matters of sexual orientation, has real insight into human nature and psychology. Some of the film's most hilarious moments take place in a straight men's self-help group to which Waltraud (Rufus Beck), a flamboyant gay friend of Norbert, has been an ongoing guest. The sequences suggest that straight men tend to be more uptight about sex than gay men and that German men in particular tend to analyze it to death.
Wortmann has been blessed in his cast, starting with Schweiger, a hunk who can really act, expressing humor and sensitivity as well as casual lust. Riemann, the new German comedy's Carole Lombard, maneuvers effortlessly through all of Doro's conflicting emotions, and Krol makes Norbert the most consistently adult and sympathetic member of this trio. Beck is wonderfully outrageous, as are Antonia Lang and Armin Rohde in key supporting roles. "Maybe . . . Maybe Not" may be designed to keep you guessing about various people and situations, but there's no question that it's one of the most exhilarating comedies of the year.
* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality and language, including some explicit sexual dialogue. Times guidelines: The film is a sophisticated, decidedly adult entertainment with an open-minded view of sex and sexuality.
'Maybe . . . Maybe Not'
('Der Bewegte Mann')
Til Schweiger: Axel
Katja Riemann: Doro
Joachim Krol: Norbert
Rufus Beck: Waltraud
An Orion Classics release of a LIVE Entertainment presentation, produced by Bernd Eichinger in association with Neue Constantin Film. Writer-director Sonke Wortmann. Executive producers Martin Moszkowicz, Molly Von Furstenberg, Harry Kugler, Elvira Senft. Based on the comic books "Der Bewegte Mann" and "Pretty Baby" by Ralf Konig. Cinematographer Gernot Roll. Editor Ueli Christen. Costumes Katharina von Martius. Music Torsten Breuer. Set designer Monika Bauert. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
* At selected theaters throughout Southern California.