How Do You Know ***
Writer/director James L. Brooks is probably best known for his work as writer and executive producer on The Simpsons but he has also entered the world of live action film directing, having made several highly acclaimed films for which he has won or been nominated for Academy Awards, including wins in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing,
Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium categories for his 1983 directorial debut Terms of Endearment (which also received awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role as well as a number of nominations in other categories), nominations in the Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen categories for 1987’s Broadcast News (which also received several other nominations) and further nominations in the Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen categories for 1997’s As Good As It Gets (which also won Jack Nicholson the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Helen Hunt the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role as well as receiving several other nominations). Such acclaim, however, hasn’t really translated to his more recent films. 2004’s Spanglish, for instance, while being a pretty good film, didn’t earn itself a single Oscar nomination and generally failed to receive the same kind of critical response that had been awarded to Brooks’ earlier films. Not only that but it also proved to be a commercial flop, something that perhaps wasn’t helped by the fact that the star was Adam Sandler, who, despite having demonstrated himself to be capable in more serious roles, completely fails to attract a large audience to anything that isn’t his usual type of comedy. Following such an underwhelming performance for Spanglish it’s understandable that expectations were not exactly sky high for Brooks’ next film, How Do You Know. Somehow, however, despite the fact that the studio behind the film publicly expressed prior to the film’s release that they were well aware of how little James L. Brooks films tend to make, a huge $120 million was invested into the making of Brooks’ latest comedy drama, making this one of the most expensive comedies of all time and one where the money really does not show on screen. The reason the film cost so much is simple – Brooks himself. When making his films, Brooks has a tendency to do very long shoots, shooting a ton of footage, all while the his stars – in this case Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson – are getting paid full freight and the result of this is a film that costs a ridiculously large amount of money without there being that much on the screen to really show for it. On top of this, Brooks wrote the film for and round Witherspoon, then indulged in uber-expensive reshoots as the studio and the writer/director tried to make her initially unlikable character more appealing. Suffice to say that, on its release in the states last December, the investment proved to be a very unworthy one as the film became one of 2010’s biggest box office disasters, going on to gross little more than $30 million – ouch. And the film was no critical darling either, the response from critics being generally lacklustre. So, now that it has been released in cinemas here in the UK, is there really anything about the film that makes it worth seeing?
Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a female softball player who, after being cut from her team as she passes 30, becomes unsure of what she really wants in life – and, for that matter, love. As she undergoes her own personal breakdown, she finds herself faced with an equally confounding problem in her love life. Does she stay with her professional baseball player boyfriend Manny (Owen Wilson), who seems prepared to give her everything in his own conventional way but who seems destined to forever retain an insensitive streak, or does she choose George (Paul Rudd), a down-on-his-luck businessman who’s recently separated, unemployed, rapidly running out of money and the target of a Federal investigation – which has cost him all but one friend, that being his former assistant, pregnant and emotionally unstable Annie (Kathryn Hahn) – yet still proves to be a tempting alternative? A man facing an even bigger dilemma as Lisa, there is something that just clicks between George and her and with his life spiraling down the drain, not helped by George’s manipulative father Charles (Jack Nicholson) trying to save his own ass, it seems that Lisa just might be his salvation. So what will it be for Lisa: bone-headed baseball player or corporate guy in crisis? In her own way she loves them both, but how will she decide which guy is her Mr Right?
I will get started by saying that How Do You Know is not going to be winning James L. Brooks any nominations or awards at this year’s Oscars. There is nothing about this film that can really be described as great and it is highly likely that you won’t remember much about it long after leaving the cinema. The key problem is that the film frequently comes off like a series of moments linked together by a storyline that isn’t strong or engaging enough, many scenes being sweet, tender or funny but the overall film seeming extremely lacking. Additionally, while a good job is done of making George into a likable character – it is, after all, far too easy to demonise corporate bosses these days – the characters in general aren’t really ones who we can empathise with, something that robs much of the character based stuff of a key ingredient. Between this and a lack of a compelling plot, it really is difficult to make any kind of emotional connection with the film’s characters or the events they are experiencing. There is one area, however, in which Brooks does do a pretty decent job and that is the comedy aspect. While this really is character drama first and a comedy second, the comedy is the film’s saving grace, with the film dishing up plenty of funny moments. The style of humour on display here is a very sensitive one, a few moments of more physical comedy, such as George getting drunk and failing down the stairs, being far outweighed by the characters finding themselves in awkward situations and by a lot of dialogue and conversation based humour. Brooks has a knack for delivering engaging and amusing conversation and here he provides an ample amount of witty and humorous dialogue for the characters to speak. Most of the funniest moments come courtesy of Owen Wilson and he is his usual funny and upbeat self, being the funniest member of the cast and one who is also immensely likable. He and Reese Witherspoon don’t have much chemistry on screen but that is probably the point as, Manny being the insensitive guy he is, we never really expect the relationship to work out, even though we do genuinely get a sense that he is trying to make things work. Witherspoon herself is decent, being suitably emotive when called for although not really getting as much opportunity to create laughs. With Paul Rudd what she has is more a friendship dynamic than a romantic chemistry at first but the way it develops into something more seems natural and reasonably convincing. Rudd himself proves to be very amusing and likable, playing up the neuroses and overly trusting naivety of his character well. As for Jack Nicholson, well, there probably isn’t anyone who could play manipulative and self serving better although it is unlikely that he will be winning any awards for this particular performance. Also of note in the cast are Kathryn Hahn whose character’s out of control hormones make for some very amusing moments and an enjoyable cameo appearance by Tony Shalhoub as a therapist (it’s particularly interesting to see him play the other side after having being the patient so many times while playing Monk). Suffice to say, the acting is generally pretty decent. Between this and the humour, the film does prove to be quite watchable although the overall result is far from being perfect. A bit too slow paced and occasionally rather bland and lacking a clear overall point, How Do You Know is really a succession of genuinely funny moments in search of a truly engaging story and it is certainly far from James L. Brooks best work.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)