Directed by: James L. Brooks (Spanglish)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn
No, the title of James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know doesn’t have a question mark. Why? I have no earthly idea. I also have no earthly idea why this spectacularly uninvolving movie was made in the first place. In fact, halfway through I asked my viewing partner, “Do you care at all about any of these people?” He admitted that he didn’t. I’ll go further: I had more emotional investment in Yogi Bear. That’s sad. And Yogi Bear wasted 36 minutes less of my time. That’s not so sad. It’s hard to say what is wrong with the film, simply because there’s almost nothing right with it.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa, a 31-year-old professional softball player whose life is turned around when she finds herself cut from the team. That’s not unreasonable, but that’s really as far as Brooks’ screenplay goes in defining her: washed-up ballplayer—I mean, apart from the fact that she’s perky Reese Witherspoon. (Morning Glory was much better at handling similar material.) Lisa ends up in an odd relationship with pro baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), who is the very definition of Mr. Casual Sex. I’m not clear why she ends up in this relationship, but the script says she does—after a good deal of tedious vacillating on her part.
In the meantime, the good-natured corporate guy, George (Paul Rudd), who once called her to tell her he wasn’t going to ask her out on a blind date (trust me, this would require more explanation than it’s worth), gets dumped by his girlfriend when he innocently lands in legal trouble. After George bumps into Lisa—and since Paul Rudd is a dutiful actor who has read the script—he opts to call her and actually ask her out. At this point, Lisa and Matty have yet to become ostensibly exclusive, so she opts to go out with George. They eat dinner in enforced (by Lisa) silence; this is a godsend compared to the scenes where they talk. Naturally, all of this evolves into a romcom triangle. However, if you’re expecting something like Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), do yourself a favor and just watch that instead.
The film lurches and flips and flops (mostly flops) as the romances complicate themselves in various uninteresting ways and George’s life spirals ever downward with the help of his scheming father, Charles (Jack Nicholson in perhaps the most unsalvageable role of his career). Charles, you see, is determined to manipulate his son into doing a stretch in the big house in order to keep himself out of it. I suppose this could be played for laughs, or it could be played for drama. Here, it’s just more clutter to keep the movie plodding for a torturous two hours. Long before the end, I would have been perfectly fine seeing them all perish in some nasty accident. Is it really that bad? Let me put it this way: I found myself wishing I was watching one of Nancy Meyers’ bloated “romantic tribulations of the rich and vapid” outbursts instead. So, yeah, it’s that bad. Rated PG-13 for some strong language. Re-rated from R on appeal and slight editing.