If you can get past the aggravating lack of a question mark in the title (I’m still trying), How Do You Know can make for a wittier-than-normal romantic comedy about a love triangle in which, unusual for the genre, all three corners are likable people. The focus is Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a member of the U.S. Softball Women’s National Team who is heartbroken over having been cut. Trying to rebuild her life and figure out what she’s going to do next, she begins dating a major-league pitcher, Matty (Owen Wilson), who must learn the rules of monogamy from scratch. She also entertains a courtship by George (Paul Rudd), who is under indictment by the U.S. government for wire fraud and has been fired and excommunicated by his co-workers – including his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson) – even though George swears he’s innocent.
How Do You Know was written and directed by James L. Brooks, who once made tart, incisive pictures filled with indelible characters (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News), but has more recently succumbed to glossy, artificial crowd-pleasers (As Good As It Gets) or outright misfires (Spanglish, I’ll Do Anything). How Do You Know (where is that question mark?) is Brooks’ most enjoyable film in years, due in big part to the performances by the three leads. Witherspoon and Rudd straddle the line between broad comedy and realism, mining their characters’ insecurities and uncertainties for humor without ever turning them into cartoons.
Wilson, the most laid-back of the three, is also good as the athlete with little experience in relationships or minding other people’s feelings. But a lot of what Matty says, which initially can sound blunt or wrong, turns out to be astute, sage advice. He just requires a little translating.
How Do You Know would have fared infinitely better without the presence of Nicholson, who is reduced here to a minor supporting burp. The entire subplot involving George’s pending trial is superfluous to the story and feels like an excuse to create a part for Nicholson, who previously won two Oscars working with Brooks, but has never flailed and sweated as fruitlessly as he does here.
Also missing from How Do You Know is the penchant drama of Brooks’ best work – the resonant insights and observations about human behavior he sneaks into his stories. The movie is all surface and trades on fortune-cookie wisdom (“You need to figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it,” Lisa’s therapist tells her) and sitcom scenarios. The many distracting product placements for Sony electronics – VAIO computers, Ericsson phones, a Playstation 3 – get old, but may have been a requirement enforced by distributor Sony Pictures. However, they only serve to further trivialize this pleasant but forgettable (and ungrammatical) bauble.