How Do You Know

How Do You Know How Do You Know How Do You Know How Do You Know How Do You Know

What has happened to writer-director James Brooks, who has given us such delightful serio comedies and enjoyable melodramas as the 1987 Oscar-nominated “Broadcast News” (his best film to date) and the 1983 Oscar-winning “Terms of Endearment”?

His last several films, including "Spanglish," and now “How Do You Know,” show tentativeness about narrative, hesitation about characterization, indecisiveness about closure (endings have always been problematic in his pictures), and a general sense of self-indulgence.
 
Like all of Brooks’ work, his new film is grounded in contemporary reality and deals with relevant issues. But like his weaker films, “How Do You Know” suffers from poor execution, manifest in uneven writing, slow pacing, and self-consciousness, which does not benefit our involvement in the tale and/or in its persona.
 
Moreover, considering that “How Do You Know” was tailor-made for its charming star, Reese Witherspoon, I am not even sure that Brooks has used and/or served her specific gifts well.
 
Framed as a romantic comedy, the new work offers a literal chronicle of the literal question of how do you know if you are really in love? 
                                                              
The movie’s first reel is promising in introducing Lisa (Witherspoon) as a woman whose athletic ability is the defining passion of her life; it’s been her focus since early childhood. When she is cut from her team, for reasons that cannot be explained here, her world is utterly shaken and everything she has known and enjoyed is suddenly taken from her. 
 
Confused and bewildered, she decides, as she says, to “stumbles toward” a more regular or ordinary life, one defined by such “routine” concerns as courtship and dating. To that extent, she gets involved with Matty (Owen Wilson), a major league baseball pitcher and a self-centered ladies man, unaware at first of his being a narcissist, but one with a code of honor.
 
Cut to another, totally different type of man, George Madison (Paul Rudd), seemingly a square. A straight-arrow businessman, George suffers from a complicated relationship with his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson, who’s becoming a regular presence in Brooks’ films).
 
Contrived plotting kicks in when George is accused of a financial crime, even though he (and we) know that he’s done nothing wrong.  There is a good chance that he’d go to jail, but meanwhile, his honesty, integrity, and unceasing optimism help him keep his sanity. 
 
Contrivance continues when Lisa meets George for a first date, and predictably, the meeting takes place on what’s the worst evening of each of their lives. She has just been cut, and he has just been served.
 
“How Do You Know” is meant to be a socially relevant comedy for individuals in transition, in a state of flux. I’m sure that many viewers have felt, at one point or another in their lives, that when their worlds are shattered and everything they have depended on is no longer dependable, love seems to be the solution.
 
However, it’s indicative of Brooks’ hesitant writing and unfocused approach that we root for Lisa and George to develop a meaningful relationship, while at the same time, we can accept it if she chooses Matty.
 
Brooks gives the impression, though not always convincingly, that the film’s title question is the most important one people ever face, that love is humanity’s saving grace, and that in a world that increasingly gets complicated, disjointed, and disconnected, it’s a question for which there are no easy answers—or no answers at all. 
 
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