By Ann Hornaday
Friday, December 17, 2010
With "How Do You Know," writer-director James L. Brooks presents viewers with yet another edgy, self-conscious heroine, the kind of "difficult" woman he has made a career of gently lampooning and slyly championing in "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News," "As Good as It Gets" and "Spanglish." Here, the hang-ups, eccentricities and ingratiating little tics belong to Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a professional softball player who, as the movie opens, is in the process of getting cut from her team.
On second thought, Lisa really isn't the typical Brooks heroine here; that title belongs to George (Paul Rudd), a financial executive who, as Lisa is getting axed, finds out he's being indicted for securities fraud. Sensitive, scrupulously honest and painfully self-aware, George is the kind of guy who, when offered the consolation that he's being blamed for someone else's malfeasance, quotes recent legislation proving he's still responsible for the crime.
A friend sets up George and Lisa on a blind date, and the night of their first encounter happens to follow the day when each receives the worst news of their lives. Only a filmmaker of Brooks's distinct sensibility could conceive of a meet-cute wherein the couple in question spend an entire meal not talking. But that's just the kind of offbeat drummer "How Do You Know" marches to. And, despite occasional hiccups in pacing and tone, it's a parade well worth joining, if only for those dashes of observational wit and rueful wisdom that have become the filmmaker's signature.
Like "Broadcast News," "How Do You Know" is set in Washington and pivots on a romantic triangle. While George convinces himself he has fallen in love with Lisa, she thinks nothing more of their dinner and pursues a romance with baseball star Matty (Owen Wilson). Most of the laugh-out-loud gags in "How Do You Know" belong to the blond, pleasantly dim Matty, channeled by Wilson with the blithe disposition and flawless timing of Judy Holliday. When Lisa says she owes him an apology after an argument in which he was clearly in the wrong, he lights up like a golden retriever who has been handed the silk pump he just mangled. "An apology?" he asks with sunny incredulity. "You may be my dream girl!"
Less amusing is Jack Nicholson, who seems to be doing his best Lewis Black impression as George's venal father, Charles. But he rises to the occasion in the film's climactic scene, set in a hospital maternity ward, which is played in Brooks's familiar key of screwball-slash-sentimental comedy. "How Do You Know" may not be perfect - Witherspoon's recessive blandness doesn't do justice to Lisa's complications, and the story somehow manages to be forced and underdeveloped at the same time - but it's the kind of movie that succeeds as a culmination of moments that ring true and sweet. Just one case in point: Rudd's face when Lisa tells George a piece of not terribly welcome news. Heartbreaking. Adorable. Sad. Sublime.
Contains sexual content and strong profanity.