How Do You Know is so clearly intent on being warm and transporting that it’s somewhat difficult, maybe even a little heartbreaking, to admit that it’s such a disappointment despite its impressive pedigree. The film stars Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson as lovers in a triangle, with Jack Nicholson assuming his traditional role as the sneaky devil who occasionally upsets the applecart. Overseeing these talented actors is James L. Brooks, the revered, deservedly iconic television producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons, among many others, as well as the writer-director of films such as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets. But this newest romantic roundelay is flat and rambling—more a sampling of Brooks’s shortcomings than his gifts.
Admittedly, How Do You Know probably wasn’t made for me anyway, as I’ve generally found Brooks’s brand of relentlessly cute, whimsical, and inflated Very Special Episodes rather hard to take. Many great romantic comedies have been entirely detached from what we often call real life, but Brooks’s films rarely work because the writer-director seems to want to have it both ways, shortchanging the fantasy with trite moralizing that would get a lesser-known filmmaker laughed out of the theater. (Jack Nicholson and Greg Kinnear’s budding friendship and subsequent “growth” in As Good As It Gets, for example, is every bit as manipulative as anything in, say, the Paul Haggis’s Crash.)
How Do You Know isn’t the disaster that most of the press claimed it to be, but it’s typically mushy and squanders some promise. Brooks, refreshingly, doesn’t appear to be after a heart-tugging lesson in tolerance this time, as he seems to be satisfied with the surface romantic-comedic implications of his not-so-bad scenario, which follows dedicated softball player Lisa (Witherspoon), recently put out to pasture, who eventually finds herself torn between rich brand-name playboy baseball player Matty (Wilson) and relentlessly principled, optimistic executive George (Rudd), whose professional life has recently been crippled by the corrupt wheeling and dealings of his father (guess who?).
Unfortunately, the timing of the film is fatally off: Bad jokes go on forever while potentially decent, darker jokes blip just under the radar, barely touched on. Brooks has always had problems with convincingly portraying despair in his films, as he likes his characters too much and relies on stock melodramatic TV shorthand to skip through to the happy parts again as quickly as possible. Despite Brooks’s reported penchant for research before initiating a project, I never believed for a moment that Witherspoon, though looking terrific after months of working out, was an obsessive athlete recently given the heave-ho. (These scenes are even more pitiful when compared to the ending of, say, Bull Durham, a film that still managed to be funny.) And Nicholson’s cutthroat betrayal of George, which would theoretically be devastating (though we’re given no clue as to what the company actually does, which could have been funny if Brooks thought to play it as an intentional joke), has all the weight of a Mentos commercial. This film is well-intentioned but embarrassingly inconsequential.
Yet, I couldn’t bring myself to entirely hate the film. How Do You Know has, at its center, a decency that’s virtually nonexistent in the cynical, ultra-barren world that’s known as the American romantic comedy. Brooks’s humanity shortchanges the discipline necessary for a snap comic filmmaker, but it also allows for passages such as this movie’s last 15 minutes, which are—against the odds of the mediocrity that preceded them—actually pretty damn wonderful. Eventually George and Lisa get together, of course, and when they embrace, Lisa joins her hands behind his back—a small touch that conveys just how much she needed this simple moment. It’s a touch that few contemporary American filmmakers would even think to put in their films. And Wilson, who gives the best performance in the movie, has a crushing little moment when he realizes that this woman—who, against the cliché of the disinterested playboy, really is the woman of his dreams—simply isn’t interested any longer. When wealthy, glamorous Matty asks Lisa what he did wrong, he could be standing in for any one of us. However flawed How Do You Know is, it’s nice to see a romantic triangle in which empathy is clearly felt with all three parties at once; understanding that everyone has their reasons, that we’re all essentially clueless wanderers of this Earth.
The transfer is forgettable, though the film is admittedly a general eyesore that doesn't really offer much opportunity in the way of audio/visual presentation. The image here might be too good in that it occasionally exposes the seams in the filmmaking, as you can occasionally detect mismatched shots and CG touching up. The audio is competent, which is to say that I didn't detect any problems with the layering of the various diegetic and non-diegetic effects.
The commentary by Brooks and Kaminski is the reason to check out this DVD. Brooks dominates, and he elaborates on virtually every detail of production—particularly how he shaped the script—without talking you to death, an impressive balance act. Brooks is a generous, gifted storyteller, which makes for an unusually joyous commentary that doesn't sound as if it's simply meant to suck up for later professional concerns; it's the same sort of decency that shines through the film even at its stupidest (said decency is probably a cause of some of the stupidity). The selected-scenes commentary with Brooks and Owen Wilson is mostly the same sort of thing, though Wilson's comments are oddly, and poignantly, rather meek and occasionally elliptical (you barely know what he's talking about some of the time). The rest—deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a making-of featurette—is the usual business as well.
A strange, well-intentioned mess that builds to an unusually effective ending.