DVD Release Date: March 22, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: December 17, 2010
Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some strong language)
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Run Time: 94 min.
Director: James L. Brooks
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn

James L. Brooks has become Garry Marshall.  This is not a compliment.

Marshall, a TV producing legend behind Happy Days and others, hit his cinematic high-point in the early ‘90s with Pretty Woman and has been coasting on lackluster (and progressively worse) rom-coms ever since. 

Brooks has been better, starting with Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi before reaching Oscar glory with Terms of Endearment, followed by the classic Broadcast News, TV's The Simpsons, and more Oscars for his leads in As Good As It Gets.  But in the new millennium, he's regressed rather than grown.  Spanglish felt like a glorified sitcom (albeit with a challenging message), and so too does How Do You Know (albeit much less thoughtful).

The best romantic comedies have a deep sincerity at the foundation of their charm; the rest that flounder do not, relying solely on the constructed meet-cute antics and perils of two attractive leads.  How Do You Know falls squarely into the latter camp, almost painfully so.

It begins harmless enough (if instantly uninspired), establishing the stock roles we've come to expect.  Our two leads each have lives that are falling apart, professionally and personally.  Reese Witherspoon is the requisite "America's Sweetheart casting coup" who fills the Girl Next Door role while Paul Rudd plays the awe-shucks nice guy unlucky in love.  Obviously all they need is each other, but will they or won't they?!  Oh, the suspense.

Granted, suspense is never a lynchpin of even the best from this genre, so what's important is that the characters feel grounded even if the narrative is romanticized.  Unfortunately, both Reese's Lisa and Rudd's George are paper-thin archetypes. 

He's been dumped by his girlfriend while being wrongly-accused of misappropriations at his firm.  She keeps dating jocks who can't be trusted while also being cut from the USA Softball team she anchored for over a decade.  He mopes in melancholy, she struggles to affirm herself with a barrage of self-help quotes, and one man stands between them! 

A rich man, to boot, and a major league relief pitcher to be specific. (Aren't they always relief pitchers?  Is there some Hollywood boycott against all other positions I don't know about?)  This slot is either filled with an annoyingly self-centered lothario or a lovably self-centered lothario.  Owen Wilson makes him lovable, which goes a small way in giving Reese a pass for trying to make it work (he's rich and fun—can you blame her?), but his incomprehension of fidelity inoculates his charm on us far more quickly than it seems to on her.

In lieu of anything credible, Brooks (in both direction and script) requires his talented ensemble to strive frantically for laughs.  Whether it be lame gags (Rudd drunk-singing into a floor lamp), old tropes (confuse the clueless doorman) or outright desperation (pregnant woman hysterics), it's all an embarrassment of mediocrity.  Even Jack Nicholson is excessively himself (which is saying something), mugging to the extreme on his way to an easy paycheck (and, no doubt, a favor to Brooks who's given Jack two of his Oscar-winning roles).
 

The structure is slipshod, often forgetting key characters for long stretches while barely doing enough to justify the presence of others.  Rudd goes missing for a good chunk in the middle, and his scenes with Nicholson—who plays both Rudd's father and boss—exist only to move the story forward, but not the characters. 

That is to say one expects even in something as simple as this for Jack's curmudgeonly (and corrupt) old man to soften at some point, maybe even drop a bit of wisdom.  Sure, those too would be cliché, but at least they'd be attempts at dimension.  Not so here as it's an entirely one-note performance that ends with a whimper. 

Perhaps most surprisingly for Brooks is the total absence of wit.  The humor is soft and easy, with absolutely no bite.  Conversations are too meta, consisting of dating "rules", rights and wrongs, etc.; the so-called banter lacks any chemistry.  Opportunities for true satire are also lost (Reese's reliance on Hallmark-shallow inspirational quotes, for one). 

Likewise, character-conflicts should resonate more; the betrayals Rudd suffers early on should hurt, deeply and personally, but his response is merely pathetic.  Consequently, the humor doesn't deliver (despite all the attempts) and the stakes are never felt (despite how they're stacked).

Rom-coms of the past few years have been particularly stale, as if all churned out by the same studio assembly line, right down to the forced multi-ethnic casting of minor roles as seen here (African-American confidante, Indian girlfriend, Jewish psychiatrist, and so on).  Nothing else is taken seriously, so why should diversity?  How Do You Know is no different than the rest, as indistinguishable as them all; a particular disappointment given the pedigree, and a letdown in light of its holiday release. 

Even the answer to the titular question about falling in love is uninspired; in so many words, it's basically "you just do."  The same can be said for how you know this movie is a dud.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Mixed drinks are made and consumed, as is beer (Guinness specifically, an obvious sponsor).  Drunkenness occurs, for comic effect.
  • Language/Profanity:  In an early scene, Nicholson spews three "f" words in succession.  Slang for male genitalia.  The Lord's name taken in vain once.  A few "s" words.  "P"ed off.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Couple in bed together, in the morning.  The sex they had is discussed.  Sounds of a couple having sex are heard, followed by seeing them immediately afterwards, under the covers.  Casual talk of sleeping around.  A man fondles a woman's breast at a party.
  • Violence/Other:  Nothing beyond comical hijinks (man falls down stairs, and so on).