Having just learned she hasn't made it back onto her professional softball team's roster, Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is at a crossroads. So, as fate would have it, her personal life is also due for a shakeup. Wooed - kind of - by womanizing Washington National's baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), she's also awkwardly approached by a businessman, George Madison (Paul Rudd), who seems to have little going for him. With her millionaire boyfriend slowly realizing he actually want monogamy and her new best friend waiting for her to realize they were meant for each other, Lisa and Matty are the two points in the triangle wondering "How Do You Know."
Like David O. Russell, writer/director James L. Brooks ("Broadcast News," "Spanglish") hasn't directed a feature film since 2004, but his film is less likely to draw any Oscar attention. In fact, it has been getting some negative media attention due to its pricey budget. But "How Do You Know" is probably going to be the most entertaining of the non-awards hyped holiday releases due to the ever-charming Paul Rudd and Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon flexing her romcom chops.
There are script problems, like the rather forced two ton federal indictment hanging over George's head and the decision he must make whether to 'take one for the team' (dad) or not. The structural underpinning that supports the relationships which develop is a bit forced, yes. But the film has a lot going for it, nonetheless.
The opening establishes Lisa's role as the senior role model for her team as, behind closed doors, Coach Sally (Molly Price, TV's 'Third Watch') must watch her recommendation as to why the team still needs the 31 year-old player gets shot down. In the background, a blissfully confident and unaware Lisa sits. She goes on a date with a good-looking famous baseball player, who, despite his charm, is rather clueless when it comes to women. His quickly retracted comment about female jocks being amazing in bed is followed the next day with referrals to supplies of toothbrushes and pink velour track suits in sizes ranging from medium to extra-small. As Matty begins to become a better person in his pursuit of Lisa, correcting years of privileged sexual promiscuity step by step, a strange thing happens. She gets a phone call from George informing her that one of her friend's suggested they go out but that he cannot because he's in a relationship. 'You're dumping me?' the amused and perlexed Lisa asks the stranger on her cell phone. One of Brook's better scripting ideas.
But things don't stay good for Lisa or George. Lisa discovers she's been dropped from her team and begins to soul search while putting the long suppressed but inevitable plan to return to school into motion. George discovers he's being indicted for Securities Fraud but has no idea what he's done wrong (ever the good guy, he accepts responsibility). And is promptly dumped by the girlfriend he's been too nice to recognize is wholly self absorbed. The film then begins a shuffle of characters trying to suppress unburdening themselves to others. Lisa tries not to whine to Matty, but George, who's called again, is the perfect sounding board. George's single, pregnant assistant Annie (Kathryn Hahn, "Step Brothers," "Revolutionary Road") is court ordered to not give him information, but is desperate to help. And when George's dad Charles (Jack Nicholson) finally gives him the skinny, George keeps dad on tenterhooks as he decides what to do.
George and Lisa's first 'date,' made before Matty gets serious, is a hilarious anti-date, Lisa declaring no talking, just eating, which George finds revolutionary and cathartic. It's ironic, therefore, when he becomes her best listener. Matty's first encounters with the basic concepts of real life coupledom are also raised above cliche by the way he works to counteract bad behavior. He's a hound dog with a genuinely sweet heart. Annie's own subplot not only provides a stepping stone for George and Lisa's romance, but provides a one-two comic punch as it unfolds.
Brooks is accused of sitcom tendencies, but he gets so much right. His Washington D.C. setting is a fairy tale concoction where Government's replaced by sports and business and where Metrobuses run better than on time. His actors couldn't be better. Witherspoon, looking naturally fabulous, is thoroughly appealing if a bit dim when it comes to George. Paul Rudd is an American treasure - America's Male Sweetheart - and he carries the film effortlessly. Owen Wilson makes a cad both sweet and comical, even quite touching in his newly insightful acknowledgement of failure. Kathryn Hahn continues to build an impressive resume, her Annie totally loyal to her boss. John Tormey ("Be Kind Rewind") makes a memorable doorman. Nicholson is saddled with a weird role - that of the father/villain, but he also gets two of the film's biggest laughs.
Director of photography Janusz Kaminski provides that same airy lighting he used for Spielberg's "The Terminal," complementing the bright production design. "How Do You Know" may exist in a place not of this world and its outcome will be no surprise but few romantic comedies do. Brooks has concocted a sweet confection with a dash of spice.
In an effort to tie into the famous 'Spanglish sandwich,' the drink George concocts for Lisa is provided in the press notes:
Into the shaker, put:
1 sugar cube
3 dashes of bitters
1.5 oz of Makers Mark
Muddle, and add to the shaker, with ice:
½ ounce lime juice
½ ounce Cointreau
Dash of grenadine
Pour into a Martini glass or over ice. Finish with a beautiful orange peel.
Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon) was a member of the Olympic gold medal-winning woman’s softball team but that is old news. Now, at 27, she is feeling past her prime, especially after being cut from the team. George (Paul Rudd) is a vice president in his father Charles’s (Jack Nicholson) company who is facing federal fraud charges for something he did not do. These two troubled souls cross paths on a bind date but each is so wrapped up in their own problems they do not see that they are made for each other in “How Do You Know,”
Uber-talented James L. Brooks has been idle from filmmaking (though he is mega-busy elsewhere) since his 2004 film that introduced the world to a great sandwich in “Spanglish.” The break has not diminished his filmmaking ability as he brings an adult-level rom-com well-written (by Brooks) and well-acted by the ace cast of Witherspoon, Rudd, Nicholson, Owen Wilson, as womanizing pro baseball star Matty, and Kathryn Hahn as Annie, George’s loyal, protective and very pregnant assistant.
When George’s potential legal problems, which could result in a three year stretch in federal prison, cause his girlfriend Terry (Shelley Conn) to dump him, he digs out the number that a friend gave and gives it a call. It is Lisa on the other end of the line and they make a date for dinner. Each is distracted when they do go out and end up eating their meal in mutual silence, shaking hands and parting ways, going back to their problems.
One of the reasons for Lisa’s taciturn attitude toward George is Matty. He’s a rich baseball player who uses his fame and fortune to bed down countless women, treating them nicely but in a crass way. He knows that Lisa is different than any other woman and she does not fall for his crude charm. This makes her all the more desirable and he asks her to move in with him. She does and things seem to be going fine until Matty’s old ways intrude and he resumes his womanizing ways. She walks out and goes to the only one who may understand her – George.
Brooks writes a somewhat predictable romantic comedy where you know, in your heart, that the right couple will be together in the end. The getting there, though, is where “How Do You Know” works. The main reason for this is the chemistry between Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd. I only found out later that the two actors are longtime friends and it shows on the screen. These two thesps are the sweethearts of the business and I have enjoyed every one of their performances that I have seen. Owen Wilson does a roughish character that I have seen him do before but he is still amusing with his good natured smile and low brow charm – he proudly displays, to Lisa, the complimentary pink sweat suits, in all sizes, and a drawer full of new toothbrushes that he keeps for his overnight guests.
Jack Nicholson does an average job, for the actor, but his presence and timing in one particular scene had the house laughing out loud. I will say no more. Kathryn Hahn gets some great screen time as Annie, especially when she nearly resorts to violence to protect George. Even when she is forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement about the company’s illegal misdoings, George threatens to run away if she tries to violate her oath to help him – he just wants to protect her and her unborn baby.
Brooks, as writer and director, maintains a firm hold on the story, letting his fine actors do the thing they do best. “How Do You Know” is a good, though not great, romantic comedy that entertains because of its stars. The story is a pedestrian boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl yarn but the actors make it better. I give it a B.
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