How Do You Know

A shaggy, meandering romantic comedy from James L. Brooks.

Reese Witherspoon and Owen Wilson

The debate around the new James L. Brooks film How Do You Know (Columbia Pictures) is at least as interesting as the movie itself. Critics have chosen sides on this big, glossy, star-filled romantic comedy: For one camp, it’s “a sloppy, sluggish production” that’s “wan and disconnected from anything that feels like real life.” For the other side, those defects become assets. The movie’s sprawl isn’t sluggish but “deliciously messy,” its candy-colored stylization reminiscent of a “Broadway comedy of the 1960s.”

Whether you find this story of a love triangle among jocks and businessmen in Washington, D.C., refreshing or excruciating may depend on what your hopes are for the genre of romantic comedy (which, I think we can all agree, has been in a period of general decline). Do you like your love stories compact, dense, and tidily scripted, or do you prefer them shaggy, meandering, and careening?

How Do You Know definitely falls into the latter category, in the grand James L. Brooks style. Primarily known as a creator of classic television ( The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons—do I really need to adduce further credits here?), Brooks has made only six movies in his long career, some good ( Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment), some lousy ( Spanglish). But all of them have shared a certain generosity of spirit, featuring neurotic, long-winded characters who are allowed to speak their piece even if it slows down the plot. When you remember a James L. Brooks movie, what comes to mind are the speeches: Albert Brooks in Broadcast News describing the many disguises of the devil to Holly Hunter, or Helen Hunt in As Good As It Getspatiently and compassionately explaining to Jack Nicholson why he’s way too crazy to get involved with. The fact that her character ends up with him anyway is one of that odd movie’s many weaknesses. That romantic ending in the bakery still makes me mad.

And there you go: The fact I’m still annoyed about what happened between Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson in a 13-year-old rom-com speaks to what James Brooks does best. He creates characters you feel like you know, then puts them in situations where they can bounce off each other like balls in a pinball machine. Here, those characters are Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a world-class softball player who’s just been cut from the Olympic team, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Matty (Owen Wilson), a none-too-bright but goodhearted major-league pitcher. Just before hooking up with Matty, Lisa goes on an odd blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a businessman about to be indicted for securities fraud. George is entirely innocent of the charges, and he suspects he’s being set up by his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), the unscrupulous head of the company.

All this plot development takes place in the first 15 minutes or so of the movie. Thereafter, we just sort of watch while the consequences unfold: Lisa and Matty break up and get back together; George sells everything he owns to pay for his legal bills while pining for the unavailable Lisa, and Charles tries to manipulate his son into acting as the company’s fall guy. There are miles of narrative slack in this second act, but also genuinely comic moments (many of them involving Wilson’s character, a golden-boy Lothario just beginning to puzzle out the concept of monogamy), and genuinely touching ones. In the movie’s best scene, a drunken Lisa admits that a part of her has never understood other women’s contentment with marriage and children: “Honestly? I always think they’re pretending.”

Whatever else you may dislike about How Do You Know—which, no question about it, is overlong and uneven—no one could accuse the movie of having an off-the-assembly-line romantic heroine. How often do we get to explore the emotional life of an unemployed female athlete? I would’ve loved a few more details about the behind-the-scenes world of a pro pitcher—and at least a glimpse of one of Matty’s actual games in progress—but during a moment when Lisa watches a tape of him pitching and murmurs, “Good mechanics,” I believe they’re two jocks talking shop. Witherspoon and Wilson are at the top of their comic form. She plays Lisa as a decidedly ungirly girl, pragmatic and blunt to a fault, while he finds new ways to mine that familiar Owen Wilson type, the male dumb blonde.

Paul Rudd’s character shifts in and out of focus—what exactly was the corporate position he lost? Why does he fixate so early on the notion that Lisa is perfect for him? But in the sharper-written scenes, especially one in which George and Lisa get platonically hammered and spill their secrets, you can see why people compare Rudd to the young Jack Lemmon: They both have the same compact build and nebbishy appeal. Kathryn Hahn, in a small role as George’s pregnant ex-secretary, gives a performance that’s a little too outsized for the movie—then redeems herself in a shamelessly sappy hospital scene that somehow, against all odds, works. Only Nicholson, still relying on tics that stopped being funny decades ago, stands out as a mood-dampening drag.

A character-driven movie like How Do You Know might have made more sense as a TV series, spinning these complex arcs out over the course of a season. But Brooks has given us the rare contemporary rom-com that’s by turns (if intermittently) thoughtful and funny, and that doesn’t feel focus-grouped, cynical, misogynist, or mean. It seems ungenerous not to cut such a generous movie a break.

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