Too cute, too star-studded and entirely too long, “How Do You Know” is a jocks’ romance that offers more proof that James L. Brooks has lost his fastball. The director of “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment” serves up an immensely quotable, scene-by-scene adorable love triangle that never amounts to anything more than a sweet nothing, an excuse to swoon over Reese Witherspoon the way Paul Rudd does as he tries to win her away from Owen Wilson.
And how do we love Reese? Let me count a few ways. The camera adores her crooked smile and wispy blond locks, especially in close-up. She registers comical confusion with the best of them, but somehow seems too smart and too together to play a variation of her low self-esteem “Legally Blond” character, which is kind of what’s called for here.
Reese is Lisa, a 31 year-old U.S. Olympic softball player who has reached the end of the line. She’s summarily cut from the squad.
Wilson is Matty Reynolds, a pitcher with the Washington Nationals, a happy-go-lucky ladies’ man who figures he’s being “open and honest” when he offers Lisa her pick of toothbrushes and “walk of shame” sweat suits after she’s spent the night in his posh apartment. No, she’s not the first. But there’s hope. “You may be my dream girl,” Mr. Self-Absorbed blurts with an enthusiasm that he insists she give him credit for.
Paul Rudd plays George, the boss’s son at a high powered finance firm. His worst day coincides with Lisa’s. He’s a nice guy who’s just been told he’s under investigation by the Feds for wire fraud. His bad day and her bad day are the perfect night for a contrived first date, a dinner in which “No talking” about their respective bad days is the rule.
George moons over Lisa even as his world unravels and his life is swallowed by the threat of a prison sentence for a crime which neither he nor the viewer ever comes to grips with. He dodges bad news from boss-dad (Jack Nicholson, funny, testy and fatherly, but trying too hard) and schemes to end up in the same room with Lisa. Lisa, having spent her life in the cloistered, focused world of athletics, doesn’t know what love is. Is it the comfy company of the pitcher and the promise of vigorous jock-on-jock sex? Or is it the considerate guy who listens to her?
Athletes and their coaches — the articulate ones, anyway — traffic in cliches, motivational slogans and aphorisms, and “How Do You Know” is packed with them, many stickered onto the mirror in Lisa’s bathroom. “Obstacles are what you see when you lose sight of your goal.” And “Courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” “The bad days make the good ones better.”
Then there’s this winner, spouted by Lisa as she rationalizes a bender — “Never drink to feel better, only drink to feel even better.”
Brooks writes some wonderful, warm and funny scenes, and Rudd in particular makes the most of them. His physicality and ability to convey doe-eyed innocence serve the movie wonderfully. There’s a delivery room proposal, hysterical f-bomb laced rants by Nicholson and winsome, deflated grieving over the life her character has lost by Witherspoon. Wilson plays a low-key variation of his mellow fellow lover, a shallow guy with no edge, an arbitrary hook up for Lisa, but undeserving of the third wheel status the film arbitrarily gives him.
There are many charming scenes — too many, as Brooks brings in Tony Shalhoub as a psychotherapist for one throw away moment, Mark Linn-Baker has another one-off scene and Kathryn Hahn shows up as a sympathetic, pregnant secretary. And those too-many scenes and characters don’t build a coherent, logical romance. This is Brooks’ “Elizabethtown,” with the writer-director wearing his heart on his sleeve, but not knowing when to stop sewing the shirt.
Spend two hours with it and then ask, “Who learned what?” and “Who deserves what they got?” Those are questions “How Do You Know” can’t seem to answer.
See for Yourself
“How Do You Know”
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson
Director: James L. Brooks
Running time: 2 hours
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language