How Do You Know (Columbia Pictures, PG-13)

I’d go so far as to say that Witherspoon and Nicholson are both awful here; it’s not even that they’re phoning it in, but more like they’re trying to be bad.

 
 
I didn’t full-on hate How Do You Know, but I came close enough to hating it that it’s going to be hard to modulate my tone here to sound like I didn’t despise it with every fiber of my being. So, to make sure I don’t forget to mention the film’s good points, here they are (this is the unabridged version): it has a great cast, I usually like writer/director James L. Brooks, and the second half is marginally more tolerable than the first half.
Sadly, I don’t have a long enough word count to give the unabridged list of the things I hated about it. The big one, though, the one that most represents everything else that is wrong with the movie, is how over-the-top phony the whole thing is. At every turn is a plot contrivance, dubious character motivation, lazy writing, unlikely decisions made both by the characters and the filmmakers, and a host of other related problems.
The plot of How Do You Know essentially concerns two broken people falling for each other, in typical Brooks fashion. These two people are Lisa (a creepily overtanned Reese Witherspoon), an aging (31) baseball star recently cut from her team, and an honest businessman named George (Paul Rudd) who is being investigated by the FBI because of something that his father Charles (Jack Nicholson) probably did and didn’t tell him about. Paul has a fiancée who is given so little screen time that I don’t begin to remember her character’s name, and Lisa is soon to acquire a baseball star boyfriend Matty (Owen Wilson), but, to answer the title question, we all know (in this case, the where the film’s going) because we’ve seen countless other stupid bullshit movies of this sort, most of which are better than this one.
I’d go so far as to say that Witherspoon and Nicholson are both awful here; it’s not even that they’re phoning it in, but more like they’re trying to be bad. (Remember that on the whole I like both Witherspoon and Nicholson, and think them both talented.) Rudd sometimes goes that route but has one or two good scenes that redeem him somewhat, and Wilson is entirely likeable in the horribly written role of Matty. Would someone give Wilson a good role, for the love of Christ? He’s one of Hollywood’s best and most versatile comedic actors, but he hasn’t had a good role since 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, and almost every single good role of his career has come from his friend Wes Anderson. He’s so much better than this; I wish his agent and casting directors would learn how to best make use of his ability.
But to get back to the phoniness thing, it’s so constant that it’s actually kind of hard to weed out an example, because the whole thing is so false that nothing in particular stands out. I guess the best route is to examine the film’s main plot, that of Lisa and George’s kind-of courtship—George creepily calls Lisa out of the blue at a point where they’ve never met, but this isn’t enough to turn her off of going on a date with him later. When they go on said date, it’s the same day that Lisa was cut from her team and the FBI begin their investigation of George—would either of them be going out on a blind date under these circumstances? (Lisa even leaves a large group of her friends at her apartment so she can go meet George.) The date goes horribly, but somehow George falls for Lisa, and even though the opposite isn’t true, Lisa continues to agree to see George, despite her burgeoning romance with Matty. Etc. etc. Every plot point, every filmmaking choice—everything is like this.
I always hated the stupid old Reese Witherspoon romantic comedies (Sweet Home Alabama and the like), but I would rewatch any one of them before I’d rewatch How Do You Know. | Pete Timmermann

 

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