“How Do You Know” is a jocks’ love story that further demonstrates James L. Brooks’s loss of speed. The director of “Broadcast News,” “Terms of Endearment,” and “The Wedding Singer” delivers a quotable, scene-by-scene charming love triangle that never amounts to anything more than a sweet nothing, with Reese Witherspoon as the object of Paul Rudd’s affection as he attempts to win her away from Owen Wilson.
The actors all give winning performances, with Witherspoon in particular bringing a likable, down-to-earth quality to her character. But the screenplay (credited to Brooks) is disappointing, relying too heavily on contrived coincidences and predictable characters. How Do You Know attempts to deal with grown-up themes like love, sex, and commitment, but it never quite hits the mark.
Lisa has been so focused on her career that she’s neglected her personal life, and now she finds herself without a job or a boyfriend.
Enter George (Paul Rudd), a charming, successful businessman who’s just been indicted for fraud. He’s Lisa’s complete opposite, but the two of them end up in a relationship thanks to a slew of coincidences.
As his world disintegrates, George gazes lovingly at Lisa even as he awaits the verdict of a possible prison sentence for a crime which neither he nor the audience is aware of. He evades unpleasant news from his employer-father (Jack Nicholson, funny, testy and fatherly but too hard) in order to be alone with Lisa. Lisa has spent her life in the isolated, focused realm of athletics and is unfamiliar with love.
The film also features Owen Wilson as Matty, Lisa’s best friend and fellow softball player; Jack Nicholson as George’s overbearing father; and Kathryn Hahn as Annie, George’s loyal assistant.
Brooks has a nice, warm, and witty script that is well-written. Rudd in particular makes the most of them, as his physicality and capacity to show doe-eyed innocence are perfect for the film. There’s a proposal for delivering room married life, hilarious f-word rants by Nicholson and Witherspoon as she mourns her character’s lost life, and winsome deflated grieving over the loss of her role. Wilson plays a subdued version of his laid-back lover in this low-key movie with no edge; a shallow guy with no edge who gets stuck playing third wheel to an arbitrarily assigned hook up between Lisa and an inconsiderate guy (unworthy).
There are several lovely moments in this film, but the sheer number of them causes it to suffer from a lack of cohesion and logic. Brooks gives us one more psychotherapist for one throwaway moment, Mark Linn-Baker has another one-off scene, and Kathryn Hahn appears as a sympathetic, pregnant secretary. And those too many scenes and characters don’t form a coherent or logical relationship. This is Brooks’ “Elizabethtown,” with the writer-director showing his emotions on his sleeve but not knowing when to stop sewing the shirt.
There are many charming scenes — too many, as Brooks brings in Tony Shalhoub as a psychotherapist for one throw away moment, Mark Linn-Baker has another one-off scene and Kathryn Hahn shows up as a sympathetic, pregnant secretary. And those too-many scenes and characters don’t build a coherent, logical romance. This is Brooks’ “Elizabethtown,” with the writer-director wearing his heart on his sleeve, but not knowing when to stop sewing the shirt.
The result is a film that feels disjointed and uneven, with too many characters and storylines competing for attention. The cast is game, but they can’t quite make up for the script’s shortcomings. How Do You Know is ultimately a forgettable romantic comedy that never fully comes together.
Director: James L. Brooks
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson
Movie Rating: 2.0/5