Yeah, I love a good romantic comedy, and I’m not too proud to admit that. I’m also secure enough to say that I find Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson quite charming, so throw them all into the same movie, and I’m sold. If you feel otherwise, and I’m willing to bet that if you frequent this site you probably do, you’ll want stop reading now.
Romantic comedies tend to work best with a strong female lead, and in “How Do You Know”, the latest offering from James L. Brooks, you get just that. Witherspoon plays Lisa, a sporty girl pro softball player and lifelong jock. All she knows is the game. All she’s ever known is the game. She is so immersed in the lifestyle that she’s only ever dated athletes, including Matty (Wilson), a hotshot major league pitcher. Matty’s a goofy man-child, bounding around like a big, stupid dog, who also happens to have an adorable penchant for one-night stands. In his penthouse he keeps a closet full of women’s sweat suits in various sizes, and a drawer full of new toothbrushes, both as a courtesy to his temporary sleepover companions. Lisa and Matty’s relationship is based on physical attraction and Lisa’s need for something uncomplicated. George (Rudd) is a high-ranking businessman in his father’s (Jack Nicholson) company. In reality, George is so painfully nice that he, well, has no business being in business. He is sweet, good-natured, gets along with everybody (including the anxious corporate lawyer played by Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry from “Perfect Strangers”), and has an uptight, analytical, math professor girlfriend.
A similar problem arises for both Lisa and George in that both of their lives change suddenly, drastically, and necessarily for the better. Lisa gets cut from her softball team for being .3 seconds slower than she used to be. Now all of her jock friends look at her funny and aren’t sure how to interact with her. Overnight she becomes an outsider in her own world. George is indicted for some vague sort of business fraud that, while not his doing, is ultimately his responsibility. His girlfriend leaves him in his moment of need, though she says she’ll be waiting for him at the end, everyone in his life is legally barred from talking to him, and he has to move into a small apartment above some sort of Balkan deli. Fate, or destiny, or whatever you want to call it, brings Lisa and George together, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart.
“How Do You Know” doesn’t blaze any new trails, not even close. If you’re familiar at all with romantic comedies, you know exactly how everything will tie up. The true upside of the film is the cast. Witherspoon manages to be both perky and tough as a woman forced to figure out what she wants out of life. Rudd is charming and amiable as ever (is he capable of playing an asshole?), and he plays George with a Charlie Chaplin kind of slapstick flair.
One unique thing about “How Do You Know” is that there is no typical “bad guy”. Matty isn’t the callous, insensitive jackass that the hero has to rescue the heroine from, like in most films of this ilk. He’s earnest and well meaning, but also completely and utterly clueless. All of the main players are likeable, more or less, even George’s father, who, in typical Nicholson fashion these days, likes to get blustery and yell a lot every time he speaks. He may compel a pregnant woman to take a swing at him, but at the core, he’s not a bad dude and he loves his son.
“How Do You Know” has a definite James L. Brooks feel, though it’s like “As Good As It Gets” lite, or “As Good As It Gets” without the character depth and emotional weight. It’s entertaining and watchable, and there are some incredibly funny moments, but in the end, it isn’t anything more than that. If you’re a fan of the genre, this is a good time and worth a look, but if not, and I assume that most of you reading this site are not, you’ll probably want to stay away and watch something with explosions, gunfire, or superheroes instead.
James L. Brooks (writer/director)
CAST: Reese Witherspoon…Lisa