How Do You Know
Published: December 22, 2010
How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks
Imagine a long-retired bodybuilder attempting to lift a heavy barbell: You worry as he approaches, knees creaking and bones cracking as he grunts his way through the clean and jerk, but damned if it isn’t inspiring when he finally hoists it over his head. You may experience a similar reaction to rom-com master James L. Brooks’ latest foray into the lovelorn, How Do You Know, a look at two people hitting rock bottom that takes some heavy lifting to reach its heartwarming conclusion.
A co-creator of classic 1970s TV shows such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, the writer/director went on to helm some of cinema’s most treasured dramedies, from Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment to As Good as It Gets and the flawed but fascinating Spanglish. How, Brooks’ first movie in six years, is reliably Brooksian. It features the auteur’s typically accomplished characters—his romantic leads in the past have been astronauts, novelists, and chefs of five-star restaurants—spouting emotional confessions in fits of literary, measured honesty as they stumble through neurosis toward a life lived, at least partially, outside of their high-speed brains and inside their open hearts.
Paul Rudd plays George, a sweet-to-a-fault, high-level businessman whose father and CEO, Charles (Jack Nicholson, displaying flashes of his old mischief), may have set George up to take the fall on a federal indictment against his company. Just as he learns of his misfortune, George meets Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), an Olympic softball player who has learned she didn’t make the cut for this year’s team. The two form an uneasy companionship that’s nevertheless mutually beneficial; Lisa’s beauty and slippery affections present a distracting challenge to George, while George’s “Bambi look” and eager listening skills allow her to unwind a bit.
Besides the impending end of their careers, another challenge to their partnership comes in the form of Matty (Owen Wilson), a superstar baseball player whose self-absorption is so total that it verges on naive innocence. At first, Lisa is drawn to his no-nonsense, attachment-free approach to relationships, but when she wants more from Matty, it’s as if the very concept of monogamy is akin to advanced calculus.
Brooks imbues these characters with so much emotional hesitancy (Lisa and Matty) and vulnerability (George and his massively pregnant, ever-sobbing assistant, Annie) that it hobbles the first hour, during which they don’t say or do anything concrete. When they finally do, in a scene in which George and Lisa get drunk, the movie falls perfectly into place and, from there, Brooks continually raises the romantic stakes until the catharsis comes splendidly. Between How and the similarly labored Spanglish, Brooks’ chances of ever returning to his kingly genre form looks unlikely, but watching him try to get there again is an unexpected pleasure.