“We are all just one small adjustment away from making our lives work”
The man doesn’t direct much—he averages almost five years between films—but James L. Brooks still holds intrigue with each release. Broadcast News is a classic, As Good As It Gets very good, and Terms of Endearment beloved, although I find it merely okay and overrated. His last film, Spanglish, actually entertained at a decently high level too, making me overlook the overwhelming number of average or below notes from critics on How Do You Know. Admittedly, the trailer did nothing for me besides show the caliber of talent wanting to work for the revered filmmaker, yet I still wanted to give it a shot. I’m glad I did, although I’m not sure I’d be interested in seeing it again. It’s an ensemble piece with a handful of nice performances languishing in the contrivance-heavy plot they inhabit.
But that’s par for the course with Brooks. If it weren’t overtly schmaltzy with at least a couple attempts to tug at heartstrings for a tear or two, I’d wonder what happened to the guy. The unfortunate thing concerning such a template is that it’s near impossible to rise above those intrinsic constraints for worthwhile art. Mediocre romantic dramedies take the large majority of such output and this Paul Rudd/Reese Witherspoon vehicle joins the ranks. He is likeable as ever in a role chock full of physical pratfalls and she fluctuates between overly cheery and annoying whiner—her character’s words, not mine—as she is often wont to do. As supporting players they’d do well, but as the centerpieces to this tome of finding love hidden in plain sight, they just don’t get the job done. The paths their lives take hold no real stakes for the viewer to care, rendering the supporting cast impotent and the plot progression tedious in its inevitability.
Both exist in an upper class world full of entitlement as their lives fall apart. Rudd’s George is in the midst of a lawsuit threatening jail time for a crime he’s only guilty of due to his nice guy penchant for trusting everyone implicitly—including father/boss Charles (Jack Nicholson) who may or may not be the real criminal—and Witherspoon’s Lisa is on the perilous ledge of being too slow for professional sports as Team USA’s new softball coach decides her ‘intangibles’ aren’t worth the over thirty year body unable to do the dazzling feats of yesteryear. They are pretty people with money, attractive 30-somethings too wrapped up in their own heads to realize when something good is there for the taking. She retreats into yet another relationship with a pro athlete—this time in the guise of Owen Wilson’s ballplayer Matty—devoid of security, respect, or anything but fling-type fun and he wallows in self-pity, unable to stop his tragic pattern of passivity.
I’ll give Brooks kudos for how he lets them meet, an awkward phone call only Rudd can pull off—a break-up before they’ve ever talked. It’s a fun exchange foreshadowing the assumed chance encounter that will bring them into each other’s worlds once more, the introduction to a pairing we in the audience know will form while their characters remain completely clueless to the meaning of happiness. So what if Lisa was only looking for a little companionship after getting cut, should she also lose all sense of self-worth by constantly forgiving a womanizer for his transgressions because he’s ‘trying’? And George—who has already lost one girlfriend when she refused to stick by him during his legal woes because she had too much work—is going to sit back and watch the girl of his dreams fall into a deeper depression, playing the ‘friend’ and feeling sorry for himself? Really? I kind of was rooting for an earthquake to open the ground and shallow them all. These two don’t deserve each other … or maybe they do, just not the happiness they seek.
How Do You Know is not without smile-inducing moments despite the banality of the central story. Wilson is quite good as his oblivious ladies’ man, Matty. Every word out of his mouth is the truth, every action genuine—he just has no capacity to see their error. He does manchild well, so much so that I wish there was less of him because the more we see, the more we loath Witherspoon’s Lisa for staying. Rudd is fantastic with neuroses, hampered by cardboard simplicity; a couple bit parts from Tony Shalhoub and John Tormey have their moments; and Kathryn Hahn is the real winner as Rudd’s pregnant assistant. Her hormonal swings are hilarious, her compassionate heart a welcome reprieve from the narcissism, and the conclusion to her arc the funniest, most real scene of the work. Lenny Venito joins in with a brilliant monologue, Nicholson has his one moment of worth, and Hahn brings it all together. I just wish there was more of that and less of the woe-is-me tripe, so overwhelming in its potential tragedy that the prospect alone of overcoming it all lost me.
 Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd star in Columbia Pictures’ “How Do You Know,” also starring Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson. © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa Jorgenson and Owen Wilson stars as Manny in Columbia Pictures’ How Do You Know (2010)
 Jack Nicholson stars in Columbia Pictures’ “How Do You Know,” also starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson. © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.