“How Do You Know” is a James L. Brooks film that plays like a parody of a James L. Brooks film. It’s an overly mannered, emotionally void romantic comedy, ideal for viewers who aren’t on the hunt for common sense when it comes to the oily mechanics of love on the silver screen.
Straining to coast on charm, the picture instead belly flops immediately, massively overestimating the appeal of the cast and the tender overtones of the script. Heck, even the camerawork is bungled in this insufferable motion picture. I can’t believe Brooks signed off on it.
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon, having trouble juggling a multitude of accents) is a softball player recently cut from the Olympic team due to age. Instead of comfort, she finds a distraction in pro baseball pitcher Manny (Owen Wilson), a lothario who takes a shine to his new girlfriend’s honesty. George (Paul Rudd) is a corporate man faced with legal doom from the U.S. Government, watching his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), slowly distancing himself from his son at his time of need.
With jail time looming, George has a meltdown, finding Lisa on the other side of his depression. Sparking up an undeniable chemistry, George is crushed to find Lisa still with Manny, pushing him to find a way to turn their unexpected friendship into something more romantic.
James L. Brooks is a legend (“Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News,” “As Good As It Gets”), and even legends are allowed to stumble now and again. However, “How Do You Know” has the shrunken posture of a first-time director who, faced with a puzzle of subplots and iffy motivations in the editing room, decided to slap the whole thing together with spit and wishes, trusting in the blinding marquee value of the ensemble to lure audiences to the multiplex. This is a misguided, frighteningly comatose tale of love and neuroses; a maze of bad ideas that Brooks robotically assembles. He’s surviving this picture, not directing it.
Outside of one effective moment of misdirection and an appealing supporting turn from Kathryn Hahn as George’s pregnant assistant, “How Do You Know” is putrid road kill, taking nonsensical leaps with logic to bond these loquacious loons together, creating a dulled love triangle that’s about as exciting to see played out as a city council meeting on public access television.
There’s a long list of objections here, but there’s one that boggles my mind: Exactly what does Lisa see in Manny to begin with? The obvious answer is a shared experience in professional sports, yet Brooks never touches on that probable connection. Manny is generally a lowlife womanizer with the intellect of a curveball, making interest from any woman who isn’t some type of groupie or gold digger a puzzler, much less someone Brooks wants us to believe is a strong-willed Olympian who takes constant inventory of her life.
Take away the fact that Witherspoon is incapable of displaying vulnerability and Wilson’s doing an irritating caricature of himself, and we’re left with two individuals who begin and end as strangers. Without any heat generated between the twosome, the tension is gone, making George too much of a gimme. Every time Lisa locks herself in debate mode with these guys, it’s utterly insulting.
Rudd is channeling Jack Lemmon here, but that spastic energy is clearly trying to liven up a DOA screenplay. All the physical comedy and herky-jerky reactions can’t cover the film’s inertia, though I applaud Rudd for being the lone star here actually submitting an effort. George is a saint with a distancing set of problems that Brooks can’t pound out into laughs, facing the reality of white-collar crime: It’s not funny.
“How Do You Know” is shot through a champagne glass, gifted a tinkly score, and prods Witherspoon to flash her pearly overbite as much as she can. These are tricks to cover obvious problems, with two full hours of precious life devoted to the easily solvable foibles of fools. Brooks shoots for whimsy, verbal liberation, and swoon. I spent much of the moviegoing experience wanting to chase after these characters with a shovel.