How Do You Know *
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Written By: James L. Brooks.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Lisa), Paul Rudd (George), Owen Wilson (Matty), Jack Nicholson (Charles), Kathryn Hahn (Annie), Mark Linn-Baker (Ron), Lenny Venito (Al), Molly Price (Coach Sally), John Tormey (Doorman).
How Do You Know is one of those horrible films that only really talented people can make. It is a film that goes so horribly wrong that it made my jaw drop, and yet I could sense that there were talented people, both in front of and behind the camera, trying really hard to make this work. Written and directed by James L. Brooks, who won two Oscars for writing and directing Terms of Endearment, and whose other films include Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, and starring an excellent cast including Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson, How Do You Know had all the ingredients of a great romantic comedy - but quite simply fails on every level.
Witherspoon stars as Lisa, who has been a jock her whole life - a member of the national Women’s Softball team for years now. But this year, she has been cut to make room for younger players, and is feeling lost. She is kind of dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a star pitcher for the Washington Nationals, who plows his way through one women after another, but senses that in Lisa he may have found the right girl. Matty is lovable and charming, but has no real substance and doesn’t have any idea how to be someone’s boyfriend.
Lisa also meets George (Paul Rudd) around the same time - and like her, he is going through hell. He is being investigated for financial wrong doing in running the company his father (Jack Nicholson) founded and passed down to him. He didn’t know what he was doing was wrong - he doesn’t seem to have any real business sense at all, and just trusted what everyone else told him. These two share a bigger connection than exists between Matty and Lisa - but is Lisa going to realize this in time?
I think the problem with the movie started in the writing stage - where Brooks was surprisingly too ambitious and too lazy at the same time. He wants to try and make a romantic comedy that brings in the current economic crisis, and also show the inequality of the sexes in portraying the difference in how male and female athletes are treated. And yet, having come up with what he wants to say, he figures out no real way to say any of it. The script is too lazy to really address the issues that it brings up - and as such there are far too many scenes that lay flat on the screen, that drag on for minute after agonizing minute after they should have ended. This isn’t the longest movie of the year, but it feels like it.
For the most part, the cast isn’t really the problem. Reese Witherspoon is not who I think of when I think of female softball player, but she is good enough here that I confidant that had she been given a decent script to work with, she would have pulled it off. Owen Wilson can do shallow and charming in his sleep, but to his credit, he doesn’t sleepwalk through this film - he actually tries very hard to make this all work, but it doesn’t come together. Paul Rudd can be a charming actor, but he’s better at being a second banana then he is at being the romantic lead - and his character is so underwritten, that it never really comes together. Worst of the major actors is surprisingly Nicholson who doesn’t seem to care at all. You really do get the impression that he is doing a favor for a friend in being in the movie at all, as he quite clearly doesn’t give a crap about his performance here. For one of the only times in his career, I can say with confidence that Nicholson is just plain boring in the film.
There are few directors who would even attempt to bring together the different aspects that this film attempts in a romantic comedy, so to a certain extent I want to praise James L. Brooks. But the truth is this is the laziest screenplay of the year. Had he scaled it down and just made a silly romantic comedy, he may have fared better. But he tries to get too much done, and as a result, he does nothing well in the film. Easily one of the worst of the year.