James L. Brooks has cranked out some really great romantic comedies in times gone by, culminating in the Oscar nominated “As Good As It Gets” in 1997. “How Do You Know” marks his return to the genre after a six year hiatus and it seems that like his protagonist, the master is somewhat past the top of his game. For while cleverly managing to avoid many of the pitfalls that make up other rom-com fluff, some of the film’s blunders are nearly as unforgivable as the lack of punctuation in its title. That said, “How Do You Know” is very watchable, even likeable, if one is able to ignore Brook’s attempts to pointedly squeeze out a serious emotional message in order to escape convention, an attempt that comes across much too plumply.
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an international softball player past her prime. At the age of 31, she is unceremoniously dumped from the team and ends up in a limbo of sorts, between job, further education and romantic involvement. As a distraction she launches into an affair with womanising and overly-narcissistic Baseball pro Matty (Owen Wilson), a relationship that is set to yo-yo from the outset. At the same time she ends up on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd) who is at a similar low-point in life, unemployed, broke and pursued by US Government lawyers for financial irregularities in the company owned by his father (Jack Nicholson). A premise like this spells formulaic in the extreme, but Brooks channels different, more unusual paths, creating an uncomfortable situation comedy with romance often sidelined to make way for reflections on life. But this is exactly where “How Do You Know” hits stormy waters: Witherspoon and Rudd have enough comic chops between them to carry the film but the screenplay is incapable of creating enough laughs to sustain a running time of over two hours. The heroine spends most of her time sporting an awkward crooked smile and (admittedly cute) puppy eyes, generally feeling sorry for herself rather than being truly funny. Considering Brooks wrote the part especially for Witherspoon, it’s a shame her talent couldn’t have been exploited more. Rudd meanwhile is likeable and has fun with his scenes but isn’t able to pull a rabbit from an empty hat either.
Even the great Jack Nicholson, who relishes roles like these and usually has enormous fun, is given a part so cold he can’t ham up to his usual deranged comic self. Instead he comes across as completely soulless and deserving of some prison time to think about his misdemeanours. Really the only reason you would want to watch this movie is for Owen Wilson’s surprisingly hilarious turn. He gets to be dumb and self centred and truly capable of love at the same time, and even though we know he doesn’t stand a chance at the end, we can’t help but like the guy. But for every scene he’s onscreen, there’s a half-rendered sub-plot wasting our time, like Witherspoon’s Softball coach, a part confused and confusing. And when in the end, some order finally comes to proceedings, the credits roll. It’s a wasted opportunity in many ways, of a good premise and of fine acting talent, the sort of film that generates paycheques in between other projects for these actors but will soon end on the dumpster end of the Hollywood conveyer belt.
Between scoring huge blockbuster movies, Hans Zimmer maintains a healthy career writing for romantic comedies and is a regular Brooks collaborator. Both “As Good As It Gets” and “Spanglish” proved excellent assignments for the composer, yielding some truly enjoyable music. His approach to “How Do You Know” to similar to the above and his Nancy Meyers works, though limited mainly to the lush strings. Pleasant by all accounts, nothing we haven’t heard before but nothing trying to be either. No soundtrack has been released, and probably won’t be considering the film’s abysmal performance at the US box-office. As it is, the music complements the film nicely but stays relatively anonymous in the background amid some popular song placement.
Overall, “How Do You Know” just about manages to stay afloat due solely to Owen Wilson. The rest of the cast perform adequately so the blame must be laid at the feet of James L. Brooks. Because we know what he is capable of writing, this can only count as a disappointment to his fans.
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