What happened to James L. Brooks? His romantic comedies used to be witty and sharply observant. But his latest “How Do You Know,” an absolute torture chamber of mistimed gags, sloppy direction and leaden pacing, lands with a shockingly unfunny thud. Has the success he’s reaped as executive producer on “The Simpsons” for 20-plus years dulled his instincts for story craft and, frankly, cut him off from the real world? “How Do You Know” is wall-to-wall with awkwardly realized scenes neither funny nor terribly revealing of the human heart that belie writer-director Brooks’ utter disinterest (or cluelessness) in the matter of creating compelling, nuanced human characters.
After Olympic gold-winning softball champion Lisa (Witherspoon) is cut from the U.S. team, she finds herself in an existential funk without her sport to give her life meaning and direction. That’s when two men enter her life: The freewheeling, pro-baseball playing skirt-chaser Matty (Wilson) and the neurotic corporate executive George (Paul Rudd). For a woman questioning her future, Matty is the perfect fun-time distraction, but it’s not long before his childish self-indulgence wears on her, and she gravitates towards George, who’s sweet, attentive and, incidentally, being investigated for massive corporate fraud. On the investigation front, George is innocent – with his puppy-dog eyes, he hardly has the face of a criminal, anyway – though he may end up taking the fall for his father Charles (Jack Nicholson), the company’s head honcho, who’s unscrupulous past practices may have finally come home to roost.
The movie contains all the ingredients for an engaging romance with relevant satirical undercurrents. But nothing quite fits or feels right here, as Brooks seems unsure whether he’s making a screwball comedy or a romantic drama. The spirit and structure of “How Do You Know” implies the former but the overabundance of close-ups, heavy sentiment and drawn-out scene-beats give an impression of the latter.
The trio of lead performers does its utmost to put a witty spin on the material, but a curious lack of energy and timing behind every scene blunts all attempts. With nothing better to do, Witherspoon spends much of her time smirking quizzically, her go-to reaction to either Matty’s off-hand selfishness or George’s shows of devotion. While Holly Hunter and Helen Hunt, previous female leads in Brooks movies, benefitted from superior scripts, Witherspoon draws the short straw. Lisa feels inadequately developed, a rough draft of a character. What’s more, Witherspoon, with her willowy frame and girlish persona, simply doesn’t convey the physicality and self-assurance of an athlete. Wilson shambles through the movie trading on his devil-may-care charm, and it acquits him serviceably. With a fully developed script, “How Do You Know” could have been Rudd’s shining moment. As the executive reaching his breaking point, Rudd gives the role all he has. His neurotic charm and sincerity survive intact but, without any verve and pace in the plotting or direction, his appeal and skills are left to waste. Longtime Brooks collaborator Nicholson doesn’t help matters: He simply trundles out his shtick of alternating between blustering and simmering rage, adding some comic mugging occasionally for variety.
With a surer directorial hand and sharp, illuminating dialogue, the movie might’ve compared favorably with the genre’s best from the 1930’s. And with Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson in the leads, that potential doesn’t seem so far-fetched at first. But then Brooks’ script and doddering direction show up and smother any magic out of the movie, consigning “How Do You Know” to the year-end pile of best-forgotten romcoms.
Directed by: James L. Brooks
Written by: James L. Brooks
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Tony Shalhoub, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Lenny Venito