James L. Brooks makes movies about charmingly quirky people going through the most defining decisions of their lives. In a Brooks film, every emotion is writ large — the laughs are big, the struggles are monumental, and even the subtlest of moments feel like earth-shattering epiphanies. With every successive project, Brooks aims to transform personal intimacy into a cinematic symphony of human comedy. Such grand ambition can either lead to Oscar-worthy classics or well-intentioned disasters, and Brooks has presided over both.
How Do You Know, Brooks’ latest dissection of human dysfunction, sits squarely in between both extremes. It is at times capable of achieving the same Brooksian magic of Broadcast News or As Good As It Gets, and at others feels like Brooks is lamely impersonating his previous work. Everything that is right about the film bears the unmistakable signature of its maker, and every awkward beat feels like a limp impostor. The film’s ultimate success depends largely upon the viewer’s appreciation of the Brooks style. As one who treasures the filmmaker’s best work, I was at once charmed to once again be in his world and disheartened that not everything felt quite like it should.
As is typical of Brooks films, How Do You Know focuses squarely on characters in the midst of turmoil so twisted it’s funny. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a classic Brooks protagonist — almost unreasonably put upon by the ebb and flow of everyday life. A veteran star on the U.S. Olympic softball team, Lisa is driven solely by the quest for continual professional success. So myopic is her lifestyle that when she discovers that, at 31, she’s been cut from the team for its upcoming season, it sparks an interpersonal crisis so deep it doesn’t even seem to go away when the movie ends. Lisa is in some vague semblance of a casual relationship with Matty (Owen Wilson), a major league pitcher who is also in crisis — in his own flighty, narcissistic way. As a baseball star, he is a lifelong womanizer who now wonders if he is falling for Lisa, but he still can’t give up his old ways.
The offbeat nature of this relationship leads to many peaks and valleys, and in the midst of one such valley Lisa goes on a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), who himself is going through one of the more dire crises in movie history — he is being indicted and will likely be imprisoned. The reason is never made precisely clear, though it’s serious enough to involve myriad attorneys and the assistance of George’s father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), who is living with a hidden crisis of his own.
There is a lot of material floating around in this screenplay, so much that it never quite seems like we can ever fully grasp every note of who these characters are and what they want. Rudd’s George is the most knowable of the group, essentially the goofy, self-conscious hopeless romantic who we all wish we were. Curiously, Lisa is the most confounding character in the film — she is in a perpetual tizzy for the film’s duration and can never tell up from down. This is likely the result of Brooks opting to tell the story of a character he didn’t understand, then shifting focus in the writing process to the more identifiable male hero. Even so, it becomes hard to feel the reality of the world these characters inhabit. Lisa and Matty play ball, but it really just seems like they are wearing costumes. George and Charles…well, it’s hard to say what they do or why they are in such hot water. If the movie knows, it does its best to conceal it. A lot of the time it feels like Brooks glosses over the details in order to hit all the necessary moments on his way to the same old conclusion.
The lack of authenticity is distracting, though the performances make up for a great deal of the problem with effortless charm and smooth chemistry. Wilson lives and breathes the odd mixture of hedonistic chauvinism and witless naivete. Nicholson is classic Jack, with a few extra shades of gray that only Brooks could get out of him. But the film belongs to Witherspoon and Rudd, whose energy is infectious, and who feed off of one another so charmingly it makes everything else seem like plot filler — and sadly, most of the time it is.
At his best and at his worst, James L. Brooks is a stalwart of the human comedy, a teller of coming-of-age stories that take place at a variety of ages. How Do You Know is unmistakably a Brooks film, though it suffers from the same frustrating flaw as its heroine — most of the time it seems lost, and yet it still finds a way to charm us.