How Do You Know (United States, 2010)

December 16, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
How Do You Know Poster

James L. Brooks' movies have often been characterized by a rambling quality, and nowhere has that been more evident than in How Do You Know, the closest he has come to a conventional romantic comedy. The problem with the film has little to do with the central triangle, which is engaging enough in a formula-driven way, but with the myriad uninteresting subplots that dot the cinematic landscape and have the unfortunate effect of padding the proceedings to the point of unwieldiness.

The biggest name in the cast is Jack Nicholson, who's making his fourth collaboration with Brooks (he was previously in Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as It Gets). On the acting side, he's also the biggest mistake. At no point do we lose sight of Nicholson. The laziness of his performance assures that his character - a big shot businessman with dubious ethics - never surfaces. When he smirks, he's Jack. When he shouts, he's Jack. When he leers, he's Jack. He's always Jack. The character's name is Charles, but I doubt anyone except Brooks knows that. As a result of this, every scene featuring Jack has problems. Although, to be fair, the movie's best joke - which occurs in a hospital room - features Jack front-and-center.

Everyone else is fine, although no one has been asked to perform outside of their comfort zones. Reese Witherspoon exhibits the same mix of comedic/dramatic acting that made her one of the highest paid actresses several years ago; she's a delight. Owen Wilson is on hand more for comedic purposes than to provide a likely romantic partner for Witherspoon's Lisa, but there's enough humanity in the character that it can be argued he has appeal. Rudd, who worked with Witherspoon in the voice category for Monsters vs. Aliens, uses his low-key approach to good effect, and he and his co-star have sufficient chemistry for viewers to be rooting for them to end up together, which is precisely the vibe one expects from a mainstream romantic comedy.

The three members of How Do You Know's triangle are Lisa (Witherspoon), a female pro softball player who, in her early 30s, is nearing the end of her career; Matty (Wilson), a star pitcher for the Washington Nationals; and George (Rudd), a recently unemployed businessman with a Federal probe hanging over his head. They have different views of love. Lisa doesn't know what it is or how to recognize it, and doubts she can ever feel it. When she sees couples in love, she believes they're faking it. Matty is a little more open to love, but equally clueless about it. For him, one night stands are sufficient, and he has a lot of those. It's different for George, who knows what love is and, after having a dinner date with Lisa, recognizes he's falling for her. Unfortunately for George, Lisa plays the "friend" card with him because she is stumbling into what approximates a "committed" relationship with Matty

How Do You Know is enjoyable when it stays focused on the interaction between the three principals. In particular, there are some nice scenes between Witherspoon and Rudd, although even the best dialogue falls short of the simple magic of "You had me at 'hello'." Some of the comedic interplay between Wilson and Witherspoon is equally entertaining, including a hilarious after-sex scene in which Lisa discovers how prepared Matty is to have overnight guests. On those occasions when How Do You Know opens its arms to embrace other characters, it falters. The Federal indictment subplot involving George and his father (Nicholson) is tiresome. The scenes featuring George and his pregnant assistant, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), feel more like filler than legitimate character-building. Ditto for Lisa's interaction with her previous baseball teammates. In some of his previous efforts, Brooks has successfully interwoven secondary storylines into his main plot to good effect, but that's not the case here. When it's not about Lisa, Matty, and George, How Do You Know wastes our time.

How Do You Know is being targeted for the empty slot created this holiday season by the absence of a new Nancy Meyers film, although the primary demographic for this movie skews younger. It's hard not to notice that Meyers' 2009 feature, It's Complicated, featured a male/female/male love triangle (with the participants being Alec Baldwin, Meryl Streep, and Steve Martin), while How Do You Know offers a similar dynamic for an audience 20 years younger. Brooks' offering isn't as entertaining - the dialogue isn't as sharp, the characters aren't as effectively fleshed out, and the best laughs aren't as big. Still, it's hard to label How Do You Know as a complete failure. It does some of what it sets out to accomplish and most viewers will depart the theater with at least the beginnings of a warm, fuzzy feeling. These days, it's hard to ask for much more.

How Do You Know (United States, 2010)

Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn
Screenplay: James L. Brooks
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Music: Hans Zimmer
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2010-12-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1