James L. Brooks’s fitfully sparkling, more often sluggish How Do You Know would be less disappointing if the writer-director hadn’t, at least in Broadcast News and his ‘70s sitcom-helming heyday, consistently brought snap and focus to popular adult comedy. Mining character-based, emotionally compelling humor in an environment that favors caricature and easy laughs hasn’t gotten easier since Billy Wilder’s day; Brooks is clearly determined to make this film’s love triangle between Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson inspire nearly as much anguish and soul-searching as laughter, but bouncing between assorted, mostly swank, Washington, D.C. milieus, he seldom finds a steady rhythm, or gets the trio’s amorous quandary to transcend its should-I-shouldn’t-I mechanics. “I want to delete everything I’m saying,” Witherspoon and Rudd lament at different stages, and one yearns for a rewrite that keeps their characters’ hesitancy at getting involved from sounding so much like a retread of Holly Hunter and William Hurt circling each other in Broadcast News, or adds a jolt of energy equal to that movie’s humming workplace urgency.
Witherspoon’s Lisa is a veteran player and leader on the U.S. national softball team whose ego becomes unmoored after she’s cut from the squad; when the womanizing baseball pitcher (Wilson) she’s dating pleads with her to move into his luxury condo, even the prodigious supply of pink bathrobes and toothbrushes he stocks for his conquests (“Just trying to be a good host”) isn’t a deterrent. Simultaneously tumbling into her life is Rudd, playing the Jack Lemmon role of a compromised executive, an unraveling mess under investigation for committing stock fraud on behalf of the company run by his leonine, slippery dad (Jack Nicholson, blustering hoarsely like Charles Coburn in a ‘40s farce). It’s Rudd who surprises most with his bursts of self-hatred and thinking-out-loud courtship of Witherspoon, seemingly liberated by not having to projectile-vomit his way through another slapstick gross-out vehicle. But Brooks telegraphs not only the core of the criminal case, but the resolution of the mating game too early; Wilson’s sincere-goofball shtick may still be easy to take, but when he answers Witherspoon’s question about his monogamy with “Sure…except for anonymous sex,” he seems merely a randy update of Ralph Bellamy going up against Cary Grant.
It doesn’t help that Witherspoon and Wilson’s identities as athletes are glancingly dramatized with a couple brief scenes in uniform or the whirlpool; sure, it’s a secondary element, but also reminiscent of Brooks swathing Greg Kinnear in puffy sweaters to play gay in As Good As It Gets. When Rudd and Witherspoon share a bonding experience at the maternity bed of his faithful, single secretary (Kathryn Hahn) and her unemployed swain, the trope of learning about love from the underclass is more forced than egalitarian. Its diffident, cute people in crisis keep How Do You Know afloat for a while, but Brooks’s wit and his facility for creating credible heart-mind-libido conflicts have both steadily waned.