An odd duck of a romantic comedy from James L. Brooks, How Do You Know strays as far from a barrel of laughs as a writer/director formed by network television can get without losing his grip altogether. The movie’s rhythms are loose, disjointed and peppered with strategic silences or half-finished thoughts. The punch lines are few, and there’s not much mugging for the camera other than from Jack Nicholson, hamming away as a triumphantly errant parent. And with Janusz Kaminski on board as cinematographer, How Do You Know actually looks like a rainy but inviting downtown Washington, D.C.—exactly what it’s supposed to look like—rather than the inside of a sitcom set.
Even with Reese Witherspoon in fetchingly scanty frocks, choosing between her sweetly clueless baseball-star squeeze (Owen Wilson) and George (Paul Rudd), a straight-arrow businessman upended by a federal investigation, How Do You Know faces uncertain prospects at the box office. But this strange, brave little film deserves to be sent out to sea in a bottle so that future generations may take the measure of just how hair-raisingly indeterminate it was to live and love in early-21st-century America.
It’s no accident that Lisa (Witherspoon) and George meet at the precise moment their professional lives go into free fall. At 31, Lisa has been cut loose from her beloved women’s pro-sports team, while George finds himself the target of an investigation for what may be shady business deals carried out by his father, a bullying rascal in the classic Nicholson mold. So floored by adversity is Lisa that on their blind date, she shushes George as he launches into a blow-by-blow account of his woes, and they finish their meal in one of the many silences and incomplete sentences that follow as they grope toward—and shy away from—a connection worth having.
Not that How Do You Know doesn’t have its moments of shamelessly entertaining shtick,much of it furnished by Nicholson and Wilson, whose character believes being a good host means stocking his bathroom with enough new toothbrushes to accommodate an army of one-night stands. But despite the shtick and the ad campaign, How Do You Know is a productively shapeless movie whose only real villains are those who use language to dissemble.
The good guys are bewildered, rendered speechless by trying to say what they mean when they’re radically unsure of what that is and whom they should say it to and how. In one of many terrific ancillary turns, a therapist (played by the great Tony Shalhoub) whom Lisa visits all too briefly for enlightenment tells her, “Figure out what you want, and find out how to ask for it.” Before it wraps up that question like the obedient Hollywood love story it eventually has to be, How Do You Know takes an unexpectedly candid detour through how incredibly hard following that directive has become.
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How Do You Know was written and directed by James L. Brooks; and stars Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson. Rated PG-13. Countywide.
This review appeared in print as "No, Really, How? Learning to say what you mean and mean what you say in How Do You Know."