Let us consider the strange fate of James L. Brooks, the multiple Academy Award-winning writer/director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets, once considered one of our most respected filmmakers, now known as the man who takes a very long time to deliver films of steadily-decreasing critical and box office returns. His latest film, How Do You Know (no need for the question mark, apparently) was six years in the making; its predecessor, Spanglish, took seven. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers Brooks a filmmaker in his prime, or one whose pictures are benefiting from their lengthy gestation periods.
That said, the scathing critical notices for How Do You Know seem to have less to do with what is on the screen than what is not--the picture arrived under a cloud of bad publicity, not just due to Brooks's slow-motion production style, but its massive $120 million budget. Suffice it to say, it does not look like a $120 million picture ($50 mill of that was solely salaries for Brooks and the four key cast members), or the result of six years' labor. It is not a great film. But it is also not a terrible one, and many of its failures are, in their own way, rather honorable.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa, an Olympic softball player who has just crossed the 30-year-old line and (not coincidentally) been cut from her team. She's casually dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a rich professional baseball star, but it might turn into something more serious. One of her teammates tries to set her up with George (Paul Rudd), an executive, but he's seeing someone as well. However, that relationship hits the skids when George finds out he's under a mysterious federal investigation. "I will be there for you... at the end," his girlfriend informs him. George, who is a bit of a mess by now, decides to ask out Lisa, who has just found out that she's not on next year's team.
So Brooks has packed up the ingredients for the worst first date imaginable, puts the pair at the table, and lets them go. It's a pretty good scene. So is a later encounter, which finds the pair staying up late and drinking together ("I used to be a bartender," George tells Lisa, "back when I was working my way through bartending") during a brief break-up with Matty. And Brooks deserves credit for attempting to give the expected romantic conflict some complexity: Lisa is a bit of a mess, George is far from perfect, and Matty, though insensitive and not too bright, isn't made an easy villain (he sees his closet full of women's clothes and drawer full of toothbrushes not as telltale signs of promiscuity, but as considerate and "classy" moves). It's a serviceable triangle, even if its broad strokes are basically the same as those of Broadcast News (from which Brooks also swipes his prologue).
But there's no disputing the movie's flaws. It's an incredibly static picture; the scenes are played with their feet nailed down, long sequences of sometimes flat conversation and endless telephone dialogue, and in spite of the involvement of Spielberg's regular photographer Janusz Kaminski, there's not much about them that's terribly cinematic (when he tries to experiment, like at the end of Rudd's big closing speech, he mostly just calls attention to himself). In spite of the long and expensive production, the editing is often awkward and patchy; an early scene's cutaways to Rudd's funny assistant (Kathryn Hahn) have the subtlety of a ballpeen hammer to the forehead. And the director's sense of pace is just deadly; the second hour (it runs a full, too-bulky 121 minutes) drags badly, with cue pickups slow enough to drive a truck through. Most of the performances are good--Witherspoon is especially believable, and Rudd is likable even when Brooks leans too heavily on his considerable offhanded charm--but Jack Nicholson, as Rudd's grumpy father, is clearly phoning this one in. He isn't given much of a character to play, and doesn't bother creating one; his character feels somewhat unnecessary, one of many sidebars that a more disciplined filmmaker would have fine-tuned or eliminated altogether. And that's perhaps the problem: in its length, its budget, and its shambling narrative, How Do You Know feels like the work of an indulgent, insulated filmmaker. He's made great movies before; what's not as clear is whether he still can.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is, for the most part, quite good--color saturation is bold and clean (particularly Witherspoon's bright red dress, every wrinkle clear on her walk of shame), skin tones are natural, and compression artifacts are minimal. There are a couple of bugaboos: the early establishing shot of Arlington, Virginia is noticeably grainier (it's obviously a stock shot) and there is some noticeable ghosting in the brief scene with a therapist. Those glitches aside, it's a good-looking image.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is, not surprisingly, almost entirely kept front and center. Surround channels are only engaged occasionally, for some environmental effects (like a thunderstorm sequence) and Hans Zimmer's vanilla score. But dialogue reproduction is clean; it's not a dazzling audio presentation, but it does the job.
An English Audio Descriptive Service and French 5.1 track are also included, as are English, English SDH, and English Commentary subtitles.
Director James L. Brooks and director of photography Janusz Kaminski provide an Audio Commentary for the film, and it's a good one; Brooks is very transparent, and Kaminiski proves a good foil and valuable commentator on the challenges of shooting comedy. A Select Scenes Commentary is also available with Brooks and Owen Wilson; the pair look at ten scenes (32:52 total), but since Wilson is watching them for the first time, they tend to lapse into silence (and his comments aren't all that enlightening, truth be told).
Brooks also offers commentary for the four Deleted Scenes (6:34 total; more are included on the Blu-ray), which give us a little more of Lisa as a child, more of George and Annie, a throwaway scene with Lisa, and an addition to the first date (with a cameo by Clerks star Brian O'Halloran). "Extra Innings" (15:03) is a short but thorough look at the making of the picture; the charming Blooper Reel (1:57) closes out the supplements.
How Do You Know may not be a success, but in a larger sense, director James L. Brooks's failures are honorable; in all of his films, he attempts to give his characters some rough edges, some complications that aren't arbitrary, manufactured bullshit. In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson's disorders and darkness were taken seriously, creating a reality that was somewhat uncomfortably at odds with its too-sunny ending. In Spanglish, the actions of the Sandler character could have been made easy by writing Tea Leoni's wife as a one-dimensional shrew; if her character was ultimately muddled and impossible to read, she was at least interesting. Here, a love triangle that would have been cartoonishly simple in the average Katherine Heigl rom-com gets to be a little prickly, a little difficult, and a consequently a little more satisfying. That doesn't make it a great movie. But it's something.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.