How Do You Know focuses on a love triangle between George (Paul Rudd), a white collar exec and Matty (Owen Wilson), a professional baseball player who both find themselves smitten with Lisa (Reese Witherspoon).
On the 120 minutes of evidence presented in How Do You Know, the creative stratosphere in which James L. Brooks’ once soared (as the guiding force behind television milestones Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons and Oscar-winning gems Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News) has entirely evaporated. This maudlin, lifeless, plodding mess brings the writer/director back to Earth with a crashing thud.
How Do You Know (the unexplained absence of the '?’ ultimately proving the film’s least irksome detail) follows three disparate hearts as they flutter through life with total self-absorption. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is an ageing Team USA softball player (not exactly the job to which most 30+ woman would instantly relate) who loses direction after she is cut from the team; Paul Rudd plays George, an executive floundering in the family business, who implodes when served a federal subpoena; and Owen Wilson dumbs it down as Matty, a big goofy man-slut who almost grows up when he falls for Lisa but never really does, and ends the film as shallow and stupid as he was at the start.
Interminably, their lives intersect, allowing Brooks to construct a series of meet-cutes and awkwardly talky scenes in which feelings percolate but nothing really happens. These three characters behave in manners best-suited to the TV sitcom world: Upon hearing bad news, Rudd bangs his head against a table; Wilson’s serial philanderer has no idea a wardrobe full of ladies tracksuits in different sizes might offend his new love. Recast this concept with Matthew Perry, Christina Applegate and Patrick Warburton, hack out the boring, self-doubting introspection and concentrate on the schmaltz /slapstick and Brooks might have had a serviceable pilot episode for some small screen mush. As a big-screen project with pretensions of romanticism and emotional insight, How Do You Know is an utter failure. (And with a grotesquely offensive budget in excess of US$120million and a sputtering box office take of US$30million, the film’s reputation as a mega-dud is assured.)
The greatest travesty is that Brooks, once Hollywood’s greatest craftsmen of snappy, smart dialogue and rhythmic romantic comedy beats, struggles to find a clear intent with many of his set-ups; he just doesn’t know when to let a scene go. Running a dire 40 minutes longer than it needs to be and favouring static two-shots for long-winded passages of mirthless yakking, the film’s momentum stalls at regular intervals.
Rudd tries hard; Wilson doesn’t. But neither of them are really the main problem with the film. Worst off is Reese Witherspoon; her perky effervescence has been replaced by a mood-killing earnestness that dictates she deliver each line as if it carried universal importance. Writing quirky, driven, romantically-challenged career women used to be Brooks’ forte (he created Mary Tyler Moore’s decade-defining TV persona and secured Holly Hunter a slew of awards for her role in Broadcast News) but his characterisation of Lisa is a major downer. Oddly, she is also a strange shade of orange throughout most of the film, for no discernible reason.
Brooks’ old friend Jack Nicholson drags himself out of semi-retirement, to play an extended cameo as Rudd’s duplicitous father. Forgoing even the merest of movie star vanities, the paunchy, balding Nicholson – often appearing as to have just rolled out of bed, even when wearing a suit – is wasted in a role that a more committed bit-player might have conjured into something watchable. Fleeting appearances by solid character actors Tony Shalhoub and Mark Linn-Baker suggest much of their work was excised in what was must have been a gruelling post-production period.