How Do You Know

December 21, 2010

Perhaps it is unfair to expect more from James L. Brooks.  His romantic comedies have generally been delightful but they are often far from transcending the genre.  They elevate themselves primarily by being wittier and sometimes cleverer than the norm, but they’re hardly great, indispensable films.  I have a certain affection for As Good As It Gets and while I didn’t care for it at the time, Kent Jones’ writing has convinced me that Spanglish might be worth another look (Tea Leoni’s mad performance stood out even then, and is perhaps worth reconsidering).  How Do You Know is slight, meandering, a little too long, vaguely enjoyable and only very occasionally “funny”.  It is an “adult” rom-com only when you compare it to every other mainstream rom-com released in recent years, and that is a sobering thought that those even those of us who love easy entertainments might find hard to swallow.

For what makes How Do You Know an “adult” rom-com is seldom for what is there but often for what is not.  The dialogue is snappier and the jokes more subtle than your standard fare, and the questions the characters ask themselves are obvious but honest and so very well put.  Really, though, it is the lack of a shrieking female lead, a smarmy male lead, the sort of broad humour that usually involves a lame animal humping a pillow, and an over-the-top comedy-action set piece climax in which one character must go through all hell to declare his or her love for the other lead.  For all of these things, I am of course thankful, but it is hardly sufficient for How Do You Know to coast by on what it avoids.  The reality is that, taken on its own terms, it isn’t especially good.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional softball player who has just been cut from the team for being too old.  George (Paul Rudd) works for his father’s generic corporate firm who has basically lost his job as he is being investigated by the government for fraud.  Matty (Owen Wilson) is a pitcher for the Washington Nationals.  Lisa, distraught with the questions of her future, shacks up with Matty because it’s easy and he’s generally a pretty well-meaning (if totally clueless) guy.  She goes on a disastrous pseudo-date with George and they meet each other later and become friends.  It’s obvious what happens, as Matty is a philandering and insensitive (but decent) guy so, by default, we know who ends up together.  Points shouldn’t be taken away from a rom-com for predictability, though, as it’s not really a matter of who gets together but how.  Witherspoon’s sleight build and sharp, pointed facial features telegraphs a no-nonsense, spunky gal who is still too feminine to threaten gender roles.  This isn’t sufficient to convince that she’s a professional athlete, but by Hollywood standards, it’s a good choice.  Owen Wilson is almost always the loveable prick, even moreso here because he’s so clueless that he can genuinely plead ignorance when he cheats on his live-in girlfriend.  Rudd is forever the loveable dude that everyone wants to be around.  He’s got an easy-going, self-effacing charm that could carry him through any film of this ilk.  His character of George, however, is so absurdly nice that, if played by anyone else, he would come off as pathetically wimpish.  There’s being a good guy and then there’s being so psychologically damaged that the world can’t be dealt with in a sensible way.  The cause of his legal and financial troubles is played far too lightly, for it is so monstrously horrible that that Rudd’s charms are stretched up to and, occasionally, beyond the breaking point.  I don’t care how nice George is, the dilemma he faces is no dilemma at all, and the fact that he grapples with it does him no favours.

The undercurrent for Lisa is that she’s devoted her life to one thing and now it’s gone and she’s woefully unprepared for what’s ahead.  A 30-year-old with no idea about a future is a very real and interesting problem, though it isn’t dealt with to the extent that it possibly should be here (presumably a true exploration of that experience would be too depressing for Brooks).  That said, while most films that feature the girl with the Wrong Guy are content to explain it away with female ignorance and/or loyalty, Lisa is plausibly with a guy that by any real standard is something of an asshole. Also, the thought of finding True Love and having kids and a family come into play seemingly out of nowhere and the occasional break-ups are more about when it fits the story rather than when it suits the character. There are certain elements present that hint at what might have been, and I’m not sure whether it makes it worse that they weren’t pushed further or that I should be grateful that those hints are there in the first place.

In the end, there are some good lines and a couple of decent scenes, but there are also a few bad ones.  It really comes down to watching nice, attractive, likeable people being nice, being attracted to, and liking each other.  Not in a wholly convincing way, but not in a thuddingly false way either.  How Do You Know seems to content to stand as a comparison to other rom-coms when it really should be pushing to be more than that.  “Hey, this isn’t Leap Year” is the absence of a negative, when we should be expecting some sort of positive.

-M

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