With Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson and Kathryn Hahn; Directed by James L. Brooks; Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language; 116 minutes.
James L. Brooks was responsible for some of the greatest sitcoms of the 1970s, such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Lou Grant” and “Taxi.” Why is it, then, that his films are such sprawling stories in need of an editor? His latest, HOW DO YOU KNOW, is a flabby romantic comedy that is not without its charms, but has enough plot for several movies, which serves to distract from what ought to be the main attraction.
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional athlete who has defined her whole life by her skills and is now, in her late 20s, presented with the notion that her glory days are behind her. George (Paul Rudd) is a business executive working for his father (Jack Nicholson) who finds himself in the midst of a criminal investigation. It is on this, the worst day of their respective lives, that they meet for a blind date.
Okay, the premise is a bit contrived, but that’s the nature of romantic comedy. If we buy the couple, then the “meet cute” – how they first get together – is simply the price we pay to go along for the ride. Writer-director Brooks, however, starts adding to the complications. George has a strained relationship with his father than is going to be sorely tested by his legal problems, especially as it becomes clear whose fault they really are. His secretary (Kathryn Hahn) is so fiercely loyal that she refers to him as “Boss” whenever they speak. She’s also pregnant with no father in sight.
Meanwhile, Lisa has just started a relationship with superstar baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), who is incredibly wealthy and just as incredibly full of himself. When he remarks how amazing sex with her is he keeps repeating it until she returns the compliment. Even when he does the right thing, he insists on getting “credit” for it while remaining obtuse to just how piggish he really is.
So Lisa and George both have to figure out what they really want to do with the rest of their lives, but Brooks makes them – and the audience – jump through so many hoops that by the time the film finally staggers to a close one is hard-pressed to care. If this was a mystery story, all these red herrings might serve a purpose, but in a romantic comedy they are deadly. We ought to be focusing on the Lisa/George relationship, not on the excess baggage.
The casting is part of the problem. Witherspoon is radiant but her character is shallow, given to quoting self-help book aphorisms. Rudd plays up his puppy dog appeal, but George is often the patsy making him hard to respect. In a more focused film, where we saw different facets of their characters, their flaws might be endearing. Instead we get way too much of Owen Wilson – an annoying screen presence at best – whose character ought not to be troubling us at all. Likewise casting a star of Jack Nicholson’s caliber as the father – he previously won an Oscar in Brooks’ “As Good As It Gets” – means his part has to be given much more weight, so that the business problems seem as important as the romance.
You may be able to ignore the flaws of “How Do You Know” and enjoy its pleasures. Yet as the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream sundae with far too many ingredients, you may end up feeling a bit queasy afterwards.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.