Review: ‘How Do You Know’

%photo13% 1. "How Do You Know" has three things going for it, and these three things are not insubstantial: Its three leads, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson. These are all movie stars, but not massive, upper-tier-level stars. (They're also apparently being paid more money they've ever been paid.) Brooks, for all his flaws as a writer and director, knows how to tweak his actors into amping up their star wattage into the red. Off the top of my head, Debra Winger, William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, Nick Nolte, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Adam Sandler ... none of these people have ever felt more like Movie Stars than they did in James L. Brooks movies. Witherspoon, Rudd and Wilson might not give their best performances in "How Do You Know," and they certainly don't have their most well-drawn characters, but I'm not sure any of them has ever been more appealing.

2. Their work is needed, because it is extremely likely that you will spend the first hour of "How Do You Know" staring stone-faced at the screen, wondering what the heck happened to James L. Brooks. I think, at 70, he might have forgotten what human beings find funny; what once worked as a sitcom-rhythm-with-a-twist now just feels like a paper mache construct. Youou can sense the three stars, all very funny people, aware that Brooks' lines aren't sharp -- Rudd has a particularly rough scene involving Wacky Drunken Hijinks -- and contorting every which way to try to make them work. They don't. For all the talk about how Woody Allen's films barely have any relationship to the way actual young people experience earth, Brooks, a fellow septuagenarian, is just as bad. His one nod to the 21st Century appears to having most of his dialogue happen on cellphones. (There are a LOT of cellphones in this movie. Not so much on the texting, though.)

3. For all the talk about how Brooks takes so much time between films -- this is now two in 12 years -- it's strange that his last two scripts (this and "Spanglish") are so slack. The plot barely so much as registers. Rudd is apparently involved in some sort of corporate malfeasance with his father's company -- Brooks isn't interested in shading, so of course Rudd is completely innocent and in fact seemingly ignorant of what the company he works for even does -- but it's not explained well and is mostly just a plot contrivance so Rudd's story has some artificial stakes. Witherspoon's arc has even fewer stakes: She's a former Team USA softball player who is cut from the team and doesn't know what to do with herself. Wilson basically just has a nice apartment and is an empty-headed but good-hearted dope. Essentially, Brooks has the same dynamic as he had in "Broadcast News:" A smart "plucky" female character choosing between a sweeter-than-you'd-think pretty boy dunce (Wilson, William Hurt) and the smart, dorky earnest fellow who will never have much success but sure does mean well (Rudd, Albert Brooks). Except that movie was also about the competitive world of network television. I don't know what this movie is supposed to be about.

4. It doesn't help that Rudd's father is played by Jack Nicholson, in a hammy, off-cue performance that is certain never to make his Career Retrospective Reel. His character could be the most compelling one in the film -- an amoral Bernie Madoff-like corporate swindler who is busted and then wrestles with whether or not to let his son take the rap for him -- but Nicholson doesn't have any time or interest to delve particularly deep into the role. He just squints and grins and chews up the couch, overwhelming every scene he's in with his Jack Nicholson-ness. The whole father-son, corporate fraud plot is a rich vein of material, and you can see what Brooks might have been going for, the sins of the father visited on the son, a boomer generation that refuses to sacrifice or get off the stage. Nicholson obviously didn't think about any of this: He's just there to be Jack. Marquee value aside, Nicholson's a terrible choice for the role: This part needed a real actor.

5. So, now that I've trashed the dull plot, Brooks' direction, the total lack of recognizable human characteristics and Nicholson's hamboning, let me confess that, dammit, I just couldn't help but like "How Do You Know." (It is to the movie's credit that at no point does anyone say the title of the movie: I kept waiting for it.) It's entirely due to those three leads, who seem to know the material is lacking and sweat their way into your hearts anyway. Wilson has the easiest role that's the neatest fit: He smiles and lunkheads in an extremely agreeable Owen Wilson fashion. Witherspoon has the most underwritten role, particularly because she's mostly reacting to the characters around her, which is taking Witherspoon's strength -- her zany, crack comic timing -- away. She still knocks it out of the park, making you believe in her confused character even when you know you shouldn't. But the real breakout is Rudd. Comedy connoisseurs have known of Rudd's chops for years, but here he shows dynamic leading man chops. He's a sort of spastic, nerdier Jimmy Stewart, an instantly likable guy who nevertheless keeps charming you more each scene. This is pretty much the John Cusack role in "Say Anything," and in a better movie, Rudd would be that sort of iconic character. I hope Rudd doesn't ride this part to an endless string of dull romantic comedy roles, but if he does, I wouldn't blame him. He, like his top co-stars, is just moony and swooney enough that even with all of the film's problems and its tone-deafeness, you just can't help but give in to him. I'm not sure the movie will end up earning back its stars' huge salaries, but you definitely can't argue they didn't earn them.

Grade: B-