Sunday, December 19, 2010

REVIEW: How Do You Know

There's a great little moment in How Do You Know when Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd are on a date. Both of them are having major personal problems and the date is off to a rocky start. Then, Witherspoon suggests the two of them simply be quiet.

Funny - that was my admonition throughout this misbegotten romantic comedy. The characters talk with such self-consciousness and self-importance that I wanted them to shut the hell up.

This should not have happened considering all the players here, who also include Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson and writer-director James L. Brooks. Brooks has given us some of the smartest dramadies in the last 30 years, including Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets. Sadly, none of these great talents is firing at all thrusters in How Do You Know. Worse, some of them are misfiring.

Witherspoon and Rudd both play people who have good reason to be messed up. At the ripe old age of 27, she has been cut from the professional softball team to which she has devoted her life. Rudd is facing a federal indictment, caused by the malfeasance of Rudd's high-strung, corrupt father, played by Nicholson. Then there's Wilson, a Major League Baseball player who also takes a shine to Witherspoon, and is a very well- meaning guy, but he has a lot of growing up to do.

Rudd, Witherspoon and Wilson have such an effortless charm that I couldn't help but like their characters, even if they were in serious need of Zoloft and/or Ritalin. Scattered throughout the film are lovely little nuggets like the aforementioned dinner scene, where, once Witherspoon and Rudd stop talking, they exchange glances that reveal their feelings for each other, even if their minds are slow to catch up with their hearts.

Regrettably, Brooks buries these moments under talk, talk and more talk that grates more often than it gratifies. The film lurches from scene to scene with no momentum and no connective tissue between the scenes. There was a good idea for a movie, but somewhere along the line, that good idea got lost. Brooks' screenplay was under-written before he shot it, and/or it was overcooked after he edited it.
The movie simply doesn't hang together very well at all.

Making everything worse is one of Jack Nicholson's most misguided performances - and it pains me to type that. Nicholson has done great work with Brooks in the past, winning Oscars with him twice. But that magic is gone. Nicholson's acting is weirdly manic, with his character launching into rants that seem to be there solely to provide a few "Jack" moments, but none of them register. Quite honestly, if I had to choose between this film and the Adam Sandler movie Anger Management, I'd watch Anger Management. At least Nicholson seemed to be having fun there.

And this is a small complaint, but it's indicative of how half-baked the whole movie is. The cinematographer was Janusz Kaminski, Steven Spielberg's regular cameraman. Usually, even when he shoots movies that aren't known for visual style, like Jerry Maguire or Funny People, his lighting has a distinctive glow. Here, the cinematography is the kind of flat over-lighting that resembles a glossy sitcom.

This film is Brooks' low point, not even measuring up to lesser efforts like I'll Do Anything or Spanglish. Simply put, How Do You Know is not as good as it gets.


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