How Do You Know?
What a can’t-miss cast! Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd are enough, but then to add Owen Wilson and Kathryn Hahn — oh, and Jack Nicholson playing a parody of Jack Nicholson? It almost seems to do the movie a disservice to have such a romantic comedy-friendly cast, because your natural affection for our leads does a lot of the work for you. These characters need to earn our love a little more than normal, for this is not your typical romantic comedy.
Witherspoon’s character is a pro-athlete who has found herself at odds and drifting, suddenly looking down the barrel of the short lifespan of the physical professions. Rudd’s character is a sudden pariah unmoored from his entire support network; his assistant Hahn is the same beacon of light for him that she is for the whole movie. His father, Nicholson, bogs down Rudd’s ability to cope in much the same way he bogs down his scenes. Wilson is a devil-may-care pro-baseball player with whom Witherspoon becomes entangled, and of course who lives in the same building as Nicholson. Many of the contrivances for these characters are straight-up “rom-com” (though the “meet cute” of Rudd and Witherspoon is refreshingly weird and unique). However, writer and director James L. Brooks seems to desire a different movie than that.
Our leads are really in a bad place in their lives when they first collide, a nice new twist, and their responses to each other are appropriately guarded and awkward. I appreciated the fact that How Do You Know? operates on the fantasy that even when the rest of your life is crap, you can still find opportunities for love and positive life choices. The problem is really the conceit that you’re capable of recognizing a good thing for what it is in the middle of such turmoil, and of analyzing your responses to it in real time, instead of the more realistic idealization of the good thing as a lifeboat in your tempest.
Hahn is a delightful character and much of the best moments in the film focus on her. Her introduction, however, also ushers in the first real awareness that this script is just…weird. People are always saying, “I caught myself” and speaking in stilted constructions, which seemed as if were meant to feel deep or insightful (or at least like delightful, unfiltered inner monologue), but instead came out incredibly false. Rudd was best at taking the internal monologue approach with minimal obvious discomfort, which made his already-dangerous levels of charm actually red-line adorable; he knows his open smile and guileless eyes can sell anything. Witherspoon’s character is one of those driven, platitude-friendly, morning-person types (lazy movie shorthand for these folks are the “crisis-equals-opportunity” Post-Its all over the bathroom mirror), whose every hackneyed philosophy, however sage, hangs on her lips like a cigarette in the mouth of a Muppet. She’s a game actress and up to the task of her atypical heroine, but her voice actually changes every time she’s forced to bark out these weird constructions. Wilson breezes through his overt red-flag behavior like he’s born to it, and Nicholson wheezes and gnaws on the scenery to a point at which I wondered if there might be some medical condition at work in his performance.
Despite using Janusz Kaminski, one of the greatest cinematographers working today, the movie looks as forced and weird as it sounds. For instance, in one office scene, there are two distinct suns. The cast is great, the premise is novel and refreshing, but the execution is awkward. It’s always an enjoyable experience to watch dual movie sweethearts struggle toward each other, but I could never forget for one second that it was a Movie written self-consciously by a Writer and will definitely have a Point.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release date: 12/17/10
Time in minutes: 116
Director: James L. Brooks
Studio: Columbia Pictures