Movie Review: How Do You Know

I was looking forward to seeing James L. Brooks’s new romantic comedy-drama (rom-com-dram?), being one of the dozen of people who really enjoyed Spanglish.  I was disappointed. Blerg.

My review for the Post/Postmedia Network:

How Do You Know

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson

Directed by James L. Brooks

Rating: two stars out of four

In the movies, when two men are vying for a lady’s attention, her choice is between the sexy, popular, and often wealthy playboy or the wholesome, sometimes nerdy, regular guy.

When faced with this black and white, Betty and Veronica scenario, you know who the Hollywood heroine is going to choose. (It’s not Robert Redford and his indecent riches.)

Reese Witherspoon’s Lisa wrestles with this dilemma in How Do You Know, a romantic comedy-drama from James L. Brooks. It is fair to hope that Brooks, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who is responsible for As Good As It Gets and Spanglish, will add dimension to the stock storyline with a smart script and textured characters.

For the most part, he does. Lisa is a 31-year-old Olympic gold medallist in softball. She drinks Guinness and she doesn’t have aspirations to get married or pop out babies. Her life is sport.

So she is understandably devastated when she is cut from the national team. She begins a fling with Matty (Owen Wilson), a major-league baseball player who serves cocktails in the morning and keeps a drawer of toothbrushes and women’s clothing for his myriad of sleepover friends.

Out of left field comes the sweet and sincere George (Paul Rudd). George has his own problems; he is being accused of a financial crime that he did not commit.

George and Lisa go on a blind date which becomes a mute date when they agree to eat in silence because they’re both so miserable. George, it appears, falls for Lisa by just watching her eat spaghetti — which is obviously how most people fall in love.

Beyond her ability to eat pasta, there is a lot to like about Lisa. Brooks has crafted a nuanced profile of a female athlete passing her prime and Witherspoon brings genuine humanity to the character. At one point, the cinematographer closes in on her face as she brushes her teeth and stares into a mirror covered with motivational post-it notes — “Courage is the mastery of fear, not the absence of it,” — and her struggle to fight her tears is so palpable

The same subtlety and depth doesn’t apply to George. As his life disintegrates and he must sell all of his possessions to pay for a lawyer, he relies on his naive optimism to survive. Audiences see his pain by the way he buries his hands in his face at the dinner table and the way he drunkenly sings erotic R&B songs.

His fiery father and founder of the company, Charles (played by an over-acting Jack Nicholson), doesn’t help the situation with his screaming and his manipulating. But there are no villains in Brooks’s film. The audience is supposed to feel warm and fuzzy about Charles even though he’s trying to send his son to jail, and about Matty, even though he’s a philandering narcissist. Matty is likable because Wilson imbues him with the same boyish, surfer-dude charm as seen in his previous roles.

Brooks directed Nicholson in Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets (the actor received Oscars for his roles in the two latter films); but there is little to like about Charles or Nicholson’s blustering portrayal of a parent trying not to devour his young.

Brooks’s script is thoughtful. But as a romantic comedy, there was nary a laugh in the theatre. Perhaps a few chuckles, at best.

In terms of romance, the most romantic scene is between George’s lip-biting, emotional pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) and the father of her baby.

Rudd and Witherspoon are missing chemistry or sexual tension. Their only kiss is this unexpected, anticlimactic mush of their mouths. And George hangs out with Lisa a total of three times — including their speechless first date — before he decides to stake his future, the future of his father and their company, on his love for her.

So to answer the question: How do you know you’re in love or how do you know something is right? You just feel it. With this film, however, audiences may not.

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