It's always sad when a bunch of really good people get together and make something really bad. How Do You Know is far from being the most egregious cinematic mistake I've ever seen, but that this flop is so genial in the way it drops face-first to the floor is probably even more bothersome than if it had crashed hard and left a giant crater. Mediocre comedies are the realm of directors like Dennis Dugan, not the great James L. Brooks.
Brooks, who all but defined the idea of a hyper-intelligent romantic comedy in the 1980s when he wrote and directed Broadcast News, heads for familiar territory in his most recent lovey-dove effort. How Do You Know is a story of pretty people with interesting jobs who are trying to get it together enough to find love and happiness even as their lives are falling apart. Except that's not true, their lives aren't falling apart, and one of How Do You Know's biggest screw-ups is how the film creates a false sense of peril for its lovebirds. Brooks would have us believe they are failing, but they aren't really, it's just needless backdrop. Making a movie where we are expected to feel sorry for a corporate moneyman and professional athletes is a colossal misreading of the zeitgeist of our times. Even as far as wish fulfillment goes, How Do You Know fails at being a fairy tale. At least Great Depression movies would have sent the young lady home with a secret millionaire.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa, a professional softball player washed up at 31. (Kudos to Reese for actually playing close to her age; boo to Hollywood for making another film where a young woman is past her prime after 29.) When she is cut from the U.S. team, her life heads into an emotional tailspin, one that her cherished motivational slogans may not be able to pull her out of. She seeks refuge in the shallow embrace of Matty (Owen Wilson), a pitcher for the Washington Nationals. He is rich and lives in a big penthouse and takes pride in not being a grown-up. He's the kind of guy that will point out every time he takes a positive step in a relationship and demand some kind of credit for doing the right thing. I know! What is she thinking, right?!
Cut across town to George (Paul Rudd), the head of some kind of stock broker-type business or other. George is being indicted for either securities fraud or maybe insider trading--even he doesn't know. All are agreed his only crime is being too nice. The company is owned by his father (Jack Nicholson), who may actually be the one responsible for whatever this federal investigation is looking for. Daddy is as conniving as George is trusting. The impending legal imbroglio isolates George, and to get his mind off of his woes, he calls Lisa. A mutual friend gave him her number. Since things are still amorphous with Matty, she gives him a shot. Despite both having their lives go to hell at just the same time--though, again, any sense of doom is always more implied than it is felt--they don't actually share their problems, they instead don't talk at all. This is, in romantic comedy terms, a big happening: they've found someone they can be silent with.
Except, being a jock, Lisa never quits and wants to stick to her commitment with Matty, and How Do You Know is essentially one long slapstick courtship where George trips over himself (literally) to be the best guy Lisa has ever known while she repeatedly gets treated poorly by Matty, stomps out on him, and then stomps right back when he pulls off some half-assed gesture. It doesn't take long before we are even more sick of this routine than George--particularly because the only times How Do You Know is actually any good is when Rudd and Witherspoon have some alone time and their characters actually finally do, you know, talk. When the comedy is dialed down and the would-be lovers communicate, How Do You Know is surprisingly sweet.
Maybe it was Brooks' intention to mimic how George was feeling. He inspires his audience to feel sudden swells of romantic yearning, only to tug it away from us again. Because make no mistake, every time there is a scene in How Do You Know that makes you think the film might be taking a turn for the better, the very next scene yanks you right back down into the pit. It's kind of amazing how much most of this movie doesn't work at all. Very little of it is outright embarrassing, most of it just lays there. It's hard to imagine what the atmosphere on the set must have been like. Was there some kind of collective delusion making these people think they were doing good work? Is Brooks the kind of guy where his subordinates are scared to tell him when he's shooting a brick? Maybe Reese Witherspoon casts a blindness spell via her natural pluckiness and her ability to still be good while everything else around her crumbles. (If so, it would explain a lot of bad movies.) Because she is actually quite likable as Lisa, and her performance has genuine energy and determination. Not so for Wilson and Nicholson, who don't even phone it in over an old-fashioned, secure landline. Hell, they don't even phone it in with an actual phone call. These guys are giving the equivalent of texting in a performance.
Which leaves us with Paul Rudd. It pains me to say this, because I have a massive man-crush on Paul Rudd, but the poor guy is terrible in this movie. To be fair, he's trying really, really hard, but he's performing as if he is in a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges screwball comedy and not some flaccid 21st-century garbage. He over emotes, over enunciates, and bounces around the screen like a marionette that has had one or more of its strings cut and the puppeteer is doing his level best to keep the show going. It's possible Brooks pushed Rudd to go for this kind of performance and had him repeatedly go into comedic seizures as a way to off-play Owen Wilson's usual coasting. It's the sort of out-of-the-trench effort you'd expect from George Clooney in a Coen Bros. comedy; it doesn't fly here.
In the "if you can't say something nice" department, I will point out that How Do You Know is one damn fine looking movie. No surprise, it was shot by Janusz Kamiński, Steven Spielberg's preferred cinematographer and no stranger to smart comedies, having been behind the camera for Jerry Maguire and Funny People. For How Do You Know, everything is bright and shiny. Reese Witherspoon's red dress on her first date with Matty sets the tone for the rest of the picture: hot and colorful. Kamiński makes great use of the big sets, the over-the-top apartments and wide-open city streets. It's almost otherworldly, like something out of Old Hollywood. We are not watching the real world at all.
Which is maybe the fatal problem. What happened to the James L. Brooks of Broadcast News and As Good as It Gets who could spin traditional moviemaking into something wholly entertaining but also identifiable and human? How Do You Know misses its target by so many miles, it's hard to believe it's even the same filmmaker who made those beloved and revered motion pictures. One can only hope this is a temporary bump in the road and not a Rob Reiner-style career derailment. Given how we usually have to wait years between Brooks movies, if they all started to suck, as well, that would just be adding insult to injury.
How Do You Know gets the kind of image treatment deserving of a much better film. The stellar widescreen transfer, encoded at 1080p, is bright and colorful, setting the warm color palette alight, capturing what one presumes is an intentionally fantastical rom-com look while also keeping the skin tones looking as close to human as Hollywood generally can get these days. Textures look excellent, with lots of fine details being evident in the expertly rendered picture. The sets are large and full of carefully chosen props, and we can see every inch with absolute clarity; likewise, there are lots of scenes with written visual cues, and it's always easy to read the words onscreen.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is presented in a lossless format with emphasis on the spoken word--which is pretty much the most important thing in the film. Occasional larger scenes that take place outdoors and with large crowds call for a little more effect, and the speakers do spark up to meet the demand. The music is mixed in well, also, giving the sense that everything is in the right place even if there isn't much screaming or shouting to be done on that side of the screen or this one.
There are a bounty of alternative language tracks, including Canadian French and Portuguese mixed in DTS-HD MA 5.1 and Spanish in 5.1 Dolby. Subtitles are offered in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, as well.
Columbia offers a lot of extras for their How Do You Know package, including several that are available exclusively to the Blu-Ray. Because apparently they never heard enough is too much.
Crossing all platforms we have two variations on the audio commentary. A full length commentary track with writer/director James L. Brooks and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is fair to middling. Brooks can be chatty, but we don't get a lot of juicy info or even much perspective. Given that the film wasn't out yet at the time of recording, neither of these guys has much distance from the work. Even worse, the selected scenes commentary with Brooks and Owen Wilson is the first time Wilson is watching any of this, so he's got very little to say about anything. Given the advanced age of DVD and audio commentaries, you'd think we'd get beyond these kind of cursory bonuses. Does anyone even care anymore? A good, incisive commentary, sure, but lazy just-show-up-sit-down-and-talk, hell to the no. At least buy them a bunch of liquor so they loosen up and get gabby.
"Extra Innings" (15 minutes) is your standard making-of, while the short blooper reel is what it is. There are just over six-minutes of deleted scenes that are also included on the DVD, with the Blu-Ray adding over 20 minutes of exclusive deleted scenes. These can be pretty substantial, though none of them suggest that there was a better movie here had not so much been left on the cutting room floor. I think instead the abundance of shaved items shows how much Brooks was maybe feeling around in the dark. An alternate ending and an animated test of the finale that Brooks ultimately went with might be the most interesting. The original ending was terrible. Also not very good are the scenes of Witherspoon's character as a child, where Brooks tries to mimic his Broadcast News opening technique and set up way too many obvious things about her. Optional commentary is available for those who want to hear what the director has to say about these excisions.
Other exclusive Blu-Ray material includes nearly half an hour of a conversation between James L. Brooks and Hans Zimmer. It may be the most inviting bonus on here, the two have a pretty good rapport. Chef Thomas Keller invented a drink called "The George" for How Do You Know, and a short instructional on how to make it using the scene from the movie where Rudd mixes one up is also on the BD with, oddly enough, optional director commentary.
Finally, the interactive script gallery gives a peek into the writing process.
All extras are in high definition, 1080p. The disc is in a standard clear plastic case and the cover is nicely designed, with an image on the inside front as well as the outside.
Rent It, if only for the few scenes that work between Reese Witherspoon and Rudd and to marvel at Janusz Kamiński's luscious cinematography. How Do You Know is a pretty bad film, so flat and mediocre, that it's hard to believe it came from James L. Brooks. It's a romantic comedy that occasionally finds the romance, but never finds the comedy. As bad movies go, it's a flat plateau rather than a disastrous crater, but in some ways, I almost wish it were worse just so it would be easier to hate it properly. Disappointing.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.