I’m willing to bet, although there’s no way to prove it, that if “How Do You Know” was written by anyone other than James L. Brooks, Sony would have had no reason to greenlight it. There’s nothing about the story, as told, that feels fully formed to me. Since Brooks is who he is, there are moments in the film that are well-written, well-played, and there are ideas that work.
I’ve read the first draft of this film, and now having seen what Brooks did with it in the shooting, cutting, and reshooting of it, I think it feels like a rough draft that doesn’t follow through on the things it lays out. It’s a near-movie. It absolutely feels like it’s the work of James L. Brooks, but muted, too relaxed to ever quite work.
“How Do You Know” tells the story of two people who find themselves at crisis points in their lives. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional softball player who has reached the point, at 31, where being good as what you do or even great at it isn’t enough. She’s just plain too old to keep her spot on the team, and that leaves her in a sort of free fall as she tries to decide who she is after her life in the game. George (Paul Rudd) is a guy who works for his father running a major company of some deliberately vague nature. He’s the target of a federal investigation, although he’s sure he didn’t do anything illegal, and his father Charles (Jack Nicholson) seems somehow involved from the moment the trouble begins. Because of these circumstances, and because of the way they both feel adrift and suddenly unsure of their futures, they would seem to be perfect for each other.
But this is Hollywood, and nothing comes easy. And in the world of James L. Brooks, women are high maintenance and men are determined to figure them out. Like James Cameron, Brooks has spent his whole career writing one particular type of woman in film after film. “Terms Of Endearment” was about two of them, a mother and a daughter, and “Broadcast News” features one of the great archetypical busybodies, and Holly Hunter was perfect in the role. Witherspoon has said that Hunter’s performance in the 1988 film was an inspiration for her, and I can see that. Witherspoon’s played her share of spark plugs, and she slips into the particulars of a Brooks character easily.
I don’t really buy her as a professional athlete, but that’s because the film isn’t really about what these people used to do. Just as Rudd’s company is kept super-vague so you’re not even sure what industry they’re in, Witherspoon’s prowess on the field is suggested in one quick montage and a few seconds of her catching a ball at the start of a scene. What’s really important about playing Lisa is capturing that blend of uber-demanding neediness and ready-to-tap warmth, something with Tea Leoni never managed to get right in “Spanglish.” Witherspoon’s pretty good at it, and this is a low-key, appealing performance from her.
The one who walks away with as much of the film as the script will allow is Rudd, who has been honing his comic persona for the last few years and who uses his universally appealing surface as an act of defiance in the face of terrible luck. He refuses to let himself be run down by what’s happening, and that gentle good nature is key to the film’s modest successes. The handful of moments where Brooks gets it right with George and Lisa makes the rest of it a tolerable, if forgettable, sit.
Owen Wilson’s played some variation on his character a dozen times before, and there’s nothing here that makes this version new. Nicholson fares even worse than that, overplaying his few moments in the film. A few of the supporting players score, like Kathryn Hahn or Tony Shaloub, score in their brief time onscreen, but there’s not a lot of room for anyone beyond Rudd, Wilson, and Witherspoon, and they’re not well-defined enough for that dynamic to be the entire reason to invest in these characters. There’s some friction between Rudd and Nicholson that is mentioned in passing but that never really turns into drama, and that’s the issue with most of the script. Brooks knows the sort of film he wants to make, and to his credit, the plot isn’t driven by people pulling the typical romantic comedy shenanigans like lying about something or pretending to be something they’re not. These are just people trying to make it through a tough time in their lives, and if the film was more honest, more substantial, it might work.
As it is, “How Do You Know” is a mild-mannered disappointment. I feel particularly bad for the three leads, because I would imagine they were thrilled when offered a chance to work with Brooks. It’s been a long time since I think he was the same James L. Brooks who cut his teeth on shows like “Mary Tyler Moore” or “Taxi,” and what once seemed cutting edge on TV in the ’70s now feels toothless and unfocused, and it’s not enough. “How Do You Know” is more “Why Should I Care,” and I can’t honestly say I recommend you rush out to see it.
“How Do You Know” opens in theaters everywhere today.