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How Do You Know: After two long hours, you wonder: Know what?

2 out of 4 stars


It's been six years since the last James Brooks comedy, so we might have expected a little rust. But not this weathered thing – How Do You Know is so oxidized it's stuck.

That's a surprise because, although his most celebrated films were always manipulative ( Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets), they were at least fluently manipulative. Brooks knew how to engineer a well-crafted script.

Yet on the evidence here – a stuttering two-hour outing bereft of any rhythm, a bunch of scenes in search of a movie – he's apparently forgotten.

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To the extent there's any structure, this is a rom-com in the shape of your basic love triangle. At the apex is Lisa the female jock, a veteran on the U.S. national softball team and a woman with a guy's distaste for the niceties of sensitive chatting and postcoital cuddling.

In other words, she's a reverse cliché, which might have been interesting/amusing if a) the character were developed and b) she wasn't played by a miscast Reese Witherspoon, who looks too fragile to pick up a softball let alone chuck it to first base. Reese may be a star, but she wears a fielder's glove like a fashion accessory.

Filling out the triangle's base is, on one side, Matty the man "with a 94-mph fastball and a $14-million-a-year contract." Yep, he's a jock too, a pitcher with the Washington Nationals. This time the cliché is inflated: Matty likes to party hearty; Matty bangs through one-night stands like batting practice; Matty stocks his flashy condo with boxed toothbrushes and pink sweats in an assortment of sizes, considerately allowing his conquests to greet the morning with a fresh smile and an unrumpled wardrobe.

Here, though, the casting is perfect. Gleefully unapologetic, always amiable and never less than honest, Owen Wilson turns a chauvinist pig into a charming swine, especially when he falls for the girl like an emotional singles-hitter – one safe base at a time. Wilson is the picture's sole bright spot.

Consequently, Paul Rudd looks dim by comparison, not that he's to blame. Brooks completely botches this point on the triangle. An exec in his father's corporation, Rudd's George is an innocent wrongly accused of stock fraud. Why? Don't really know, but not-so-dear old Dad (Jack Nicholson) seems content to let him be the scapegoat, even if it comes to the slammer. Anyway, suspended from the company, George has plenty of time to moon about and fall for the girl too.

Meanwhile, cruelly cut from the softball squad, Lisa drifts between her two suitors, the ebullient rascal and the wounded innocent, and the rest of the flick tries to generate suspense over where the fair lady will bestow her favours. Whom will she love and how does she know? If only we cared.

Perhaps sensing our indifference, and yet completely unwilling to sacrifice even a second of the bloated running time, Brooks hopes to divert us with subplots, the longest a meandering detour into the hospital room of George's very pregnant secretary. There, a mildly comic scene unfolds. And there, for reasons I won't bore you with, the same damn scene gets repeated, albeit with the needle on the comedy meter dipping from mild to zilch. Still, it took minutes off the clock.

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As for Nicholson's patriarch, he might be good or he could be bad. Unable to decide, the script settles for making him a confusing blur. Poor Jack. Once upon a time, back in those Terms of Endearment days, he got to play the charming chauvinist with the babe-a-night habit. But here, encumbered with this non-character, the legend is left with little to do but dip into his bag of mannerisms and cackle a lot. How we envy him – at least someone's laughing.

How Do You Know

  • Directed and written by James L. Brooks
  • Starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd
  • Classification: PG

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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