How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks
Screenplay by James L. Brooks
Reese Witherspoon as Lisa
Paul Rudd as George
Owen Wilson as Matty
Jack Nicholson as Charles
Running time: 116 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language.
This Movie Gets At Least One Good Review
In lesser hands, How Do You Know could have been a thoroughly ordinary serving of what passes in this day and age for “romantic comedy.” Fortunately, the man at the helm is perhaps the only living person capable of making the genre palatable – delightful, in fact – to more than a tiny cross-section of moviegoers. James L. Brooks, executive producer of The Simpsons and director of such acclaimed films as Terms Of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets, offers yet another pleasant surprise with this witty and mature new comedy.
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a pro softball player facing the fact that, while still young and beautiful, she is passing her athletic prime and needs to find a new path. George (Paul Rudd) is a very nice business executive who finds himself taking the fall for a mysterious criminal indiscretion within his company. On arguably the worst day of their respective lives, they find themselves on a blind date together. Already, the conventional path to romance seems out of the question. Nonetheless, they make a substantial impression on one another, though neither understands it fully until later.
In the wake of this chance encounter, George and Lisa gradually realize that nearly everyone else they know talks to them in roundabout, noncommittal euphemisms designed to spare their feelings and keep them from the frank truth of life to which, as adults, they are entitled. The main exception is George’s devoted personal assistant (Kathryn Hahn), who goes to tremendous lengths to encourage and support him while visibly struggling with the demands of advanced pregnancy, among other challenges. Tony Shalhoub also makes a rapid but memorable cameo as a very skilled therapist. The big question is whether George or Lisa has the confidence to drop everything and pursue the one person they can relate to sincerely and openly.
At no point are the characters forced to address this mutual problem out loud. The script sets it up naturally, subtly, and above all clearly. When Lisa is off her guard, she lapses into insipid motivational sports jargon. George unconsciously reverts to corporate buzzwords. They have been programmed all their lives to reason this way, and this shared tendency symbolizes the powerful hold that the past has on each of them. In order to move on to a better life, they must presumably overcome this difficulty together.
James Brooks gets people. This is a great talent. He understands how they act at their best and at their worst, and what is funny about both. Countless little moments in this movie ring uncomfortably true. A recurring problem for George is that he keeps encountering the girl of his dreams after receiving disastrous news, so that in her presence he continually appears distracted, morose, and possibly insane. The harder he tries to make a good impression, the worse his chances get. Lisa is pushing so hard in the direction of where she thinks her life should go that it takes her a very long time to realize how much George appreciates just having her around.
The little touches are what make this film so good. Like real people, these characters alternate between the very human extremes of sweetness and pettiness that influence every interaction between two or more people. Two really great examples stand out. The first is the way that people talk when they are drunk and subtly attracted to one another. Kudos to Rudd and Witherspoon for capturing this kind of elusive romantic nuance without overdoing it. The second is a scene in which Reese Witherspoon breaks down and cries in the middle of brushing her teeth. It it both a very unflattering close-up and a supremely poignant moment. It makes weeping in most other movies seem just a little bit fake.
Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd do not always make great movies, but when given the chance they rise to it. Both are as funny and enjoyable as they’ve ever been. George and Lisa would make a great couple, if only they would wake up and go for it! The key to enjoying this movie is liking these two people. Otherwise we would not root for them, but merely gripe at them for not taking charge of their lives sooner.
Owen Wilson deserves special mention for his supporting role. He is an actor who does not get taken seriously very much, mostly due to his undiscriminating choice of projects. Nonetheless, he is a gifted comedian in the proper role, and this may be his most charming since Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. One hopes that Wilson has found his way out of the woods, both personally and professionally. All we can ask of him – nay, beg of him – is no more Marmaduke! As a professional baseball pitcher and Lisa’s sometime boyfriend, Wilson plays the most in-your-face goofball imaginable. Far from being just a loser “dude” character, he is in fact a sweet but painfully insecure guy who just can’t quite make the emotional or intellectual leap to understand how a woman might like to be treated.
Rounding out the cozy cast is Jack Nicholson, one of the director’s perennial allies, as George’s gruff and possibly crooked father. Nicholson won acting Oscars for both Terms Of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. He and Brooks play well together, and his appearance in this movie is a reminder of what great sense of comedy the actor has. When Nicholson plays a funny character, he can be as delightfully bad as he wants and we will love him. As an unfunny character, he can be almost too scary to watch. A recent re-viewing of Scorsese’s The Departed strongly reinforces this theory.
Romantic comedy is easy to execute poorly. To do it well requires finesse, as well as respect for both the material and the audience paying to see it. Mike Judge could almost be great at it, but his all-consuming preoccupation is how extremely stupid people are. Keenly observed, but that only takes one so far. Nora Ephron definitely has a handle on her personal style, but consistently underestimates the intelligence of her audience. Many among the next generation of writers have potential, but are too hung up on the American Pie “gross-out” approach to love and sex to realize it. A romantic comedy needs a healthy balance of both brains and heart. While the correlation is by no means direct, this approach to comedy is part of what kept The Simpsons – in the early years, anyway – for becoming the waste of time and attention that Family Guy became in record time.
How Do You Know is a grown-up comedy. Not an adult comedy, mind you. It is fine for kids, but they may not find it all that funny. It is a welcome late arrival for the 2010 movie season, and will be excellent therapy for anyone fed up with the stress of working through the holidays. If you are in the mood to feel good after feeling a little bit sad, this movie might be just what you need.