Saturday, December 18, 2010

"How Do You Know" is agreeably cast but dull and overlong


How Do You Know (2010)
116 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C -

"How do you know when you're really in love?" is the question posed by writer-director James L. Brooks' romantic-comedy "How Do You Know." But the real stumper is, how do you know when a James L. Brooks film is a stunningly flat, chemistry-free dud? Although agreeably cast and costing an outrageous $120 million, it's dishearteningly clear early on, as many scenes just sit there, with the pacing so “off” you just wish Brooks had given the “OK, let's wind it up” finger motion. 

Reese Witherspoon, radiant and perky as all get-out, plays Lisa, a 31-year-old pro softball player who's cut from the team by a man and thereafter feels lost. She's casually dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a pitcher for the Washington Nationals whose beliefs in monogamy run loose. Set up by a fellow softballer, Lisa meets non-athlete George (Paul Rudd), a decent-type businessman who's just been dumped, is on the outs with his short-tempered father (Jack Nicholson), and currently under federal investigation. So she's torn, but who will she choose? Too bad it never feels like there's anything at stake. 

"How Do You Know" is so talky with a rambling script and characters always talking in circles about what's on their minds, even when they're not drinking. Added to the tiresome near-two-hour run time is a supererogatory subplot involving Nicholson's very pregnant assistant, played by the funny Kathryn Hahn. Even as the wrong guy, Wilson is still clownishly charismatic and earns the film its funniest moments, while Rudd amps up the neurotic tics so much as the sadsack everyschlub that he's more annoying and gooey than endearing. After a blind-date dinner with her, where neither party speaks, George is completely smitten by her, but it makes no sense. Lisa is too wishy-washy, whiny, and undefined of a character; she keeps post-it notes of pat can-do sayings on her mirror, and that's the only other thing we know about her. Bottom line: we don't really care which guy she ends up with. Thankfully, she's played by the appealing Witherspoon who's in good shape here. 

Even shark-grinning Jack (who won Oscars for two of Brooks' previous movies) is made into one dull boy, appearing in maybe five scenes as George's self-absorbed crook of a father whose subplot comes from another movie. The only consistently bright effort is that it's flatteringly shot by Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Under Brooks' steerage, "How Do You Know" could've been another sharp romantic-comedy, like "Broadcast News" or "As Good As It Gets," but it's far from as good as it gets.

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