How Do You Know? review by Tom Blain

When James L. Brooks writes a movie, he has to know he is walking a fine line between creating a fun, screwy comedy, versus something that is completely unwatchable and whose characters alienate audiences across the world. If you look at his limited selection of films, there is one common thread apart from being, at a high level, classified as "dramedy." That thread is unstable characters who are central to his films. Now I backspaced the term "comically unstable" because at times his characters can come across as annoying rather than funny. Take for example, Spanglish. The movie is centered on the problems that Tea Leoni's character creates just by being neurotic. Her presence creates issues with her children and nearly drives her husband to adultery and if you were in the audience you were likely rooting FOR adultery rather than against it. She is so intolerable, that she ruins the otherwise enjoyable performance of Cloris Leachmam (who plays an oft-drunken grandma). The rest of the movie (script, story idea, direction, dramatic acting of Adam Sandler save us all) is not strong enough to compensate for such an off-putting character and therefore the movie is near unwatchable.

Oh and can someone please shutoff that damn HANS ZIMMER?!

On the other end of the spectrum there is As Good as it Gets. Jack Nicholson is a diagnosed obsessive compulsive, a shut in, and an extreme bigot. But somehow he pulls it off. Nicholson gives the character lightness underneath the rough exterior and reveals a human side to an otherwise unsavory personality. In fact, he is most delightful when he is at his craziest (contrasting with Leoni's character). The casting of nearly anyone else in this role could have been catastrophic. No Oscars, no reruns on TBS, no multiple DVD releases, etc. It could have been a Spanglish precursor.

And that is the tight rope James L. Brooks must walk when he writes and directs every movie he makes including the obscurely, forgettably titled How Do You Know? The movie introduces us to two characters whose minds are muddled with issues and problems so much so that they don't see the world in front of them. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional softball player who has just reached the end of her career, but not by her choosing. Her mind is filled with questions about what to do next; questions she wasn't ready to ask herself just yet. Her character seems to be the type that has taken direction (from coaches?) her whole life and is now, for the first time, on her own to make her own decisions. George (Paul Rudd) has his mind wrapped up in a government indictment that he will soon be facing. Worst of all, it is his family business, he doesn't know why exactly he is facing legal issues, and his old man Charles (Jack Nicholson) is coming down on him hard. To complicate matters, there is a third party Matty (Owen Wilson) who is romantically involved with Lisa. His mind, however, is clear from thoughts, problems, and entanglements. It's clear of just about everything. He is also a philandering baseball player which makes a monogamous relationship problematic, but being an easy going guy he is eager to give it a try.

Of course the goal of the movie is to bring George and Lisa together, but it really takes the movie about an hour to bring them to any point where they even talk to each other. In that preceding hour, there are multiple setups for issues (lawyer speak, accountant jargon, talks of USA softball team cuts, crying, hugging with friends, blah blah). About 30 minutes that is unnecessary setup, in particular the many cell phone conversations between George and his father or friend Annie. Most of these conversations lead to absolutely nothing. Something like, "Hey there is something I have to tell you, but I cant tell you, do you want me to tell you? Oh but I cant because I could lose my job but Ill try to let you guess." Or "I need to talk to you in person and not over the phone. When can we meet?" I've got an idea... just meet and don't waste the audiences time with a worthless cell phone call that adds nothing to the story and offers no laughs.

Brooks' overuse of the cell phone interruption almost seems to be intentional. It interrupts conversations. Its there in a scene and carries precedence over all else that happens. If it rings, everything stops so that it can be answered but rarely does answering solve anything or serve any greater purpose that goes on in these people's already clouded lives. It merely serves as an extension for all the confusion and unclear thinking that they are already experiencing. As if the thoughts in their head weren't enough to keep them from having a normal conversation at dinner, there is that ringing cell phone to offer up more frustration and agony.

Oh and to pull a note out of the Nancy Meyers handbook; the film is completely over-scored by Hans Zimmer. Is it too much to ask that we have a moment that isn't amplified by his schmaltzy orchestra of emotion? One of my pet peeves about romantic comedy/drama crossovers is that every emotional moment (and nearly every other moment for that matter) has to be enhanced by some heart wrenching score that doesn't need to be there. It should be enough for an actor or actress to pull this emotion out of the audience using their talents but somewhere, some guy said, "We need a 32 piece orchestra to make sure they get the point. Just beat it into them." And Hans Zimmer is usually the guy waiving the conductors baton around like a sledgehammer over the audiences ear drums. Its in a lot of Nancy Meyers and James L. Brooks movies... and its in this one. Ok I'm done with that rant. My apologies.

Now back to the relationship. One of the issues with bringing Lisa and George together is the assumption that she has two choices: the millionaire ball player with no brain and a wandering penis or executive who is about to face criminal charges that he may eventually hope to pin on his dad. Now I know, "there are plenty of fish in the sea" is a generic term to feel better but it should apply here. When you have legs like Reese Witherspoon and are looking for stability, I think it might be worth giving the dreaded "friends speech" to both cats and start looking for option three.

Back to my introduction, with respect to issues of character annoyance this movie falls somewhere in between As Good as it Gets and Spanglish. The only character who really seems to come away being a hit is Owen Wilson's lovably stupid Matty Reynolds. Ironically he is the one who is most worry free and most stable (despite having a revolving bedroom door). For the first hour, the other characters (Charles included) are teetering between going over the edge and regaining their balance. Possibly with stronger direction or more directional style the movie could have been saved. I always wondered what one of Brooks movies would have looked like in a better director's hands. Instability is at the core of his writing and bringing together people despite their flaws is a major theme of his but I rarely feel like he directs his actors successfully to pull this out of them and at the same time offer an entertaining film. In the final hour there is finally some chemistry being built and a few slightly comic moments but overall How Do You Know? falls short of success.

LINKS:
* IFC.com tells us that the role Nicholson played was originally intended for Bill Murray. That would explain why Nicholson's character seems so unnatural. Switching out to Murray wouldn't have saved the movie in my opinion but it certainly would have improved it.
* Jan at Movies.com says, "Kudos to Brooks for crafting Lisa as the kind of smart, level-headed, capable, red-blooded, confident female protagonist we never get to see." Respectfully disagree. I understand Lisa's life was one-track and that track ended, but she seemed to fall to pieces quite quickly and I'm not sure by the end of the film we can say she successfully picked them up.


3 out of 10 Jackasses

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