fri 16/04/2021

How Do You Know | reviews, news & interviews

How Do You Know

How Do You Know

James L Brooks writes, directs, produces and flunks

Blonde on blond: Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson in 'How Do You Know'

Just to fill in that blank left by the title, how do you know when you’re in love? It’s the question posed by every romantic comedy ever made, satisfactorily answered only by the good ones.

Just to fill in that blank left by the title, how do you know when you’re in love? It’s the question posed by every romantic comedy ever made, satisfactorily answered only by the good ones. James L Brooks, who wrote, produced and directed Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, has spent a lifetime in film looking at the problem from a variety of Oscar-winning angles. If he doesn’t know how to lead an audience to the promised land, then who the hell does? So it’s good he’s at the helm here, right?

Just to fill in that blank left by the title, how do you know when you’re in love? It’s the question posed by every romantic comedy ever made, satisfactorily answered only by the good ones. James L Brooks, who wrote, produced and directed Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, has spent a lifetime in film looking at the problem from a variety of Oscar-winning angles. If he doesn’t know how to lead an audience to the promised land, then who the hell does? So it’s good he’s at the helm here, right?

Well, maybe. The plot of How Do You Know is back-of-a-stamp simple. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has to choose between two men: playful, sexy, extrovert Matty (Owen Wilson) and awkward, complex, troubled George (Paul Rudd). She’s got two hours of screen time to take her pick. In the circumstances you have to say that’s an extremely generous helping.

Wilson, an actor whose shallows know no limits, does the floppy blond slacker-dude thing, while Rudd puts on his regular display of preppy antic oversell, and there’s a large lizardy cameo from Brooks’s old accomplice Jack Nicholson. But this is primarily a vehicle for Witherspoon. Theoretically she is an intriguing choice, a comic actress who has always known how to play unlikeable – in Legally Blonde and Election – to the point that you wondered if you’d ever find yourself rooting for her from the first reel. As it happens, here you do.

how-do-you-knowLisa is a perky US softball champ coming to the end of her time, who when she learns she’s dropped from the team weeps ever such touching tears. Around her the mirror swarms with Post-It sports mantras that would seem to be of no further use, till suddenly she wipes her eyes, gets a grip and opts to make the best of her cards. That means sticking with Matty, even eventually moving in with him. George, meanwhile, is struggling with a federal prosecution for illegal trades in the family firm run by his father (Nicholson, pictured above with Rudd). His whole life has imploded, leaving him in no state to perform on his blind date with Lisa, so much so that in one of the film's quirkier (and blissfully quiet) scenes, she insists they eat in silence.

Watch the blind date scene

They meet again in the lift of the swanky tower where his father and her boyfriend both live. And so the dance begins. Will her ingrained fear of defeat force her to stick with the stupidly rich baseball star who keeps toothbrushes and spare pink clothes for conquests who happen to stay over? Or will she fall in with the big-time loser? It’s a weakness of the drama that for all his slow puppyish charm Wilson can invest his character with no winning features whatsoever. However hard he tries to sell the finer points of a Neanderthal jerk whose every utterance comes pre-dipped in dumb juice, it just doesn’t come off. Lisa walks out on him repeatedly, only to keep on walking back in. Why? Mainly because the script needs her to hang around. There are those two hours to fill. And George has to sort out his business with his father, with the help of his mad pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn, who gurns so much it’s as if she’s sending her performance over from the next film lot).

A narrative that starts open-mindedly shuts down by degrees until all that’s left are join-the-dots tropes copied out from the rom-com handbook. Let us pass over the acute embarrassment of the hospital bedside scene, not to mention Lisa’s reductive visit to a shrink which contrives to insult psychotherapists everywhere, even the bad ones (“Figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it”). You know a script is up shit creek when it keeps alluding to other better movies, in this case Kramer vs Kramer and Bambi (common theme: absent mothers). The other film tacitly invoked is Jules et Jim, only this triangle contains no Jules nor Jim and certainly no Jeanne Moreau.

'Do not rock the boat': Kathryn Hahn overacts

For about half the movie, you can enjoy the sight of Witherspoon cutely crinkling her nose and wrinkling her eyebrows. She’s like a live version of an immaculately blow-dried Disney heroine. She could be that girl in Tangled. But it turns out that’s all she does. You keep waiting for a real emotion to steal up on her but being dropped from the softball team is as bad as it gets. Compare this (and Hahn’s subtextless performance) with Holly Hunter in Broadcast News (who also had to pick between a vacant Adonis and a chaotic beta male, played by Brooks) and Shirley Maclaine in Terms of Endearment and you can only assume Brooks has lost interest in women.

OK, laughs are to be had here and there, mostly thanks to Wilson. Brooks can still write lifestyle jokes. Nicholson has the best moment when, towards the end, his face reacts to charming news before registering that for him personally it's actually catastrophic. But then he also says to Rudd, “I can’t trust myself not to manipulate you. I don’t know if I’m doing it now.” How Do You Know, in which nothing is ultimately at stake, would be a much better film if only it were more manipulative. Now how often do you hear that?

Watch the trailer to How Do You Know

You know a script is up shit creek when it keeps alluding to other better movies, in this case Kramer vs Kramer and Bambi

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