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James L. Brooks is the name that most likely comes to mind when you’re talking about terrific romantic comedies. However, his name might become less synonymous with the finest films in that genre upon seeing his latest flick, How Do You Know.
The film centers on Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) and George (Paul Rudd). Lisa is a famous baseball player who is cut from her team while cohabitating with/dating an emotionally lacking baseball player named Matty (Owen Wilson). George is a corporate businessman being investigated by the federal government for fraudulent business practices. The two cross each other’s paths several times in their respective dilemmas.
How all of this is supposed to make a solid structure for a film is beyond me. Of course, romantic-comedies with worse plots have worked, so what’s the real issue here? Nobody goes to see films such as these for an excellent story or even a halfway decent one. A good romantic comedy has lightness, something that makes it fun and entertaining. Sadly, this film offers none of that. Quirk and wittiness abound and would have the potential to appease audiences if not for the fact that they are painfully forced and awkwardly executed.
Does the film redeem itself with character development or great performances? Hardly. We know what these people are, but we don’t know who they are. In fact, the only character who seems to have any kind of personality whatsoever is Wilson’s Matty. Consequently, the actor’s trademark laid-back, free-spirited style works surprisingly well here. While Rudd’s sharp comedic timing and Witherspoon’s natural charm are utilized to an extent, they really lack chemistry as romantic leads.
The film seemingly tries to play on that dearth of spark a little bit, but it falls short of what Brooks has offered us in the past. Jack Nicholson has descended from his excellent skill to give us a truly abominable performance as Rudd’s father. Kathryn Hahn gets kudos for turning a thanklessly wretched role as an assistant at Rudd’s workplace into something mildly delightful.
In short, the film boasts a talented comedic cast but ultimately suffers from its horrendous writing. In a brief and underused role as a shrink, Tony Shalhoub tells Witherspoon that the best advice he can give is to find out what you want out of life and not to be afraid of asking for it. In that case, I know what I want: is it too much to ask that Brooks gets his head back in the game?
How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks
Written by James L. Brooks
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson