By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
James L. Brooks takes his time. And his movies take theirs.
Maybe that’s why most (well, three out of five) of this talented writer-director’s movies have turned out to be truly special: Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets.
Not that there’s anything terribly wrong with his latest romantic comedy, How Do You Know. It’s just that there’s not enough right with it (at least judging by his lofty standards) for it to measure up to his best work.
Still, it fits right in with his other respectable also-rans — I’ll Do Anything and Spanglish — which means that while it won’t rock anyone’s world, there is undeniable pleasure to be had in its presence and watchability.
So how do you “no” it? You don’t.
With a thoroughly disguised Philadelphia (where some of the film was shot) standing in for the Washington, DC setting, there’s a love triangle (shades of Broadcast News) at the center of How Do You Know involving 31-year-old Lisa, a member of the US national softball team played by Reese Witherspoon, and an insecure thirtysomething corporate executive, George, played by Paul Rudd. He’s vying for her affections with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, the distracted and roving but fiercely possessive Washington Nationals relief pitcher played by Owen Wilson.
When Lisa and George meet, it is on a blind date that occurs when each of them is at what seems the low point of their existence, or at least of their professional lives.
She has just learned that she’s been cut from her beloved softball team. And he has just found out that he’s in big legal trouble, the target of a federal investigation that could lead to him being wrongfully indicted for stock fraud, largely because of the idiosyncratic bookeeping of his wealthy father and boss, Charles, played by Jack Nicholson (performing in his fourth James L. Brooks flick, two of which earned him Oscars).
Not exactly a perfect night for a date with someone new.
But Lisa and George proceed anyway, with both wondering how to know what to do about the problematic relationship (her boyfriend, his father) that currently denies them contentment and threatens to make whatever passage or transition they’re about to undertake that much more difficult.
That question mark not in the title isn’t the only thing missing here. True, the film never quite takes off and thus never carries us off. But Brooks is such a gifted creator of characters and writer of dialogue that he gives his game cast characteristically vivid and quirky roles to run with.
The crispy dialogue we expect from Brooks may not have its full quotient of snap, crackle, or pop, but he still manages to make us, if not heavily invested in the outcome, at least strongly curious about it.
By the time it’s over, by the time the triangle has resolved itself, by the time the denouement arrives, we’re surprised to find ourselves caught up in the choices being made.
Brooks gives his cast plenty of room to strut their stuff. And while the work turned in by Witherspoon, Rudd, Wilson, and Nicholson isn’t groundbreaking or atypical or award-worthy either individually or collectively, they’re properly relaxed and sufficiently charming enough for us to enjoy their company for a couple of hours.
Comedy concocter Brooks has opted to go for smiles of recognition rather than guffaws, although Rudd snags a couple of the latter with moments of inspired physical comedy.
But our desire to be knocked out of our seats rather than thoughtfully tickled makes the film somehow seem both refreshing and disappointing. Sure, we wish Brooks wouldn’t stop his movie dead in its tracks with an extended subplot involving a pregnant secretary that belongs in a different movie. But, hey, he’s earned the right to take a detour or two.
“Figure out what you want, and find out how to ask for it.” That’s the advice a therapist played by Tony Shalhoub gives Lisa when she visits him. Good advice.
Okay — what we want is a movie that’s as good as it gets. Alas, this isn’t it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
So we’ll triangulate 2½ stars out of 4 for How Do You Know, an uneven but fitfully amusing romantic dramedy with moderate strengths outweighing its modest weaknesses.
How do I know? Given the punctuation, good question.