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How Do You Know (A Movie Review)

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

How Do You Know


Starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Lenny Venito, Molly Price, Ron McLarty, Shelley Conn, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Tormey, Teyonah Parris, Dean Norris, Jim Bouton, Tara Subkoff and Tony Shalhoub.

Screenplay by James L. Brooks.

Directed by James L. Brooks.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures.  116 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Celebrated writer/director James L. Brooks certainly doesn’t rush himself.  In fact, How Do You Know is only his fifth new film in the 27 years since releasing his Best Picture winning dramedy Terms of Endearment in 1983.

Not that the guy has been slacking off completely – his production company Gracie Films has been behind films such as Big, Jerry Maguire, The War of the Roses and Say Anything, plus Brooks made a huge splash in TV by bringing The Simpsons to fruition.

Still, Brooks has a reputation as one of the geniuses of Hollywood and it is his own films that have given him that status.  (Well, that and a stellar sitcom career in which Brooks helmed classic series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi – so perhaps it is understandable that he is slowing down after spending decades in the fast-paced world of television.)

However, more and more his films are not quite living up to his reputation.  In fact, his last completely successful film artistically was Broadcast News way back in 1987.  Since then, he has made some pretty-good-but-not-great movies – As Good As It Gets (1997) and Spanglish (2004).  He has only had one complete and utter failure to his name, the misbegotten musical comedy I’ll Do Anything (1994).

Still, when one of the acknowledged giants of filmmaking averages a movie every five or six years, when a new one comes you expect to be blown away.

How Do You Know also reunites Brooks with Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.  Nicholson has always been a good luck charm for the director, appearing in his best films: Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets.

So, was it worth the six year wait since Spanglish?

Not really.  Not that it’s a bad movie.  In many ways it is quite good.  However, it is no where near as good as we know that Brooks is capable of creating.  It’s not even near as good as its coming attractions trailer suggested it would be.

It’s a shame, really, because How Do You Know has attractive, likable leads, an interesting storyline and some very sharp writing.  The operative word, though, is some, because often, with little warning, the character dialogue and actions veer from smart and funny to odd and overwrought.  (This awkwardness manifests itself even in little ways, like the filmmakers’ odd insistence on not using a question mark in the film’s title.)

Paul Rudd’s lead character in particular gets caught in this trap.  Rudd does a fine job of acting, but the things the guy says and does are often impossible to believe.

Rudd plays George, a young exec at his dad’s firm who has finally found love and professional gratification, only to have it all fall apart when he is placed under investigation by a Federal Grand Jury and upon hearing the news, his girlfriend leaves him.

George’s dad Charles (Nicholson) – who has a complex relationship with his son, to say the very least – tries to do what he can to help, yet at the same time Charles places nothing over his own self-preservation.

A distant friend of George’s hooks him up with one of her teammates on the US women’s softball team.  Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has her own problems going on in her life – she is cut from the team because it is decided she is too old at 31.  (An example of Brooks’ uneven writing here is the fact that when later in the movie Lisa alludes to this same friend who supposedly connected them, she acts like George wouldn’t know who she was.)

After George and Lisa have a historically bad first date, she falls into a relationship with a shallow professional baseball player named Matty (Owen Wilson).  George holds onto the hope that when he gets his life sorted out, he will be able to work something out with her.  After they run into each other on the elevator (her boyfriend and his dad live in the same building – small world…) they become friends though George keeps hoping that it will turn into something more.

And this is where the problems start to settle in.  After a good chunk of time where the film was mostly going smoothly, George’s character suddenly starts talking like… I don’t know what exactly, but certainly not a man.  He is over-the-top complimentary one moment, passive-aggressively nasty the next, sappy, soppy, confessional and overly emotional.

Lisa is at first, naturally, a little freaked out by this wholesale change of personality but then eventually she falls into the same screenwriting traps as well.

For a writer with a canny ear like Brooks, the frequent clunky dialogue is alarming – and it is made even more incomprehensible because at other times even in this film, Brooks nails the way people speak.

However, other scenes are unbearably over the top and twee – one which comes immediately to mind has George and Lisa witness his secretary (the normally reliable Kathryn Hahn, who is hung out to dry in this story) and her boyfriend (Lenny Venito) first sharing the birth of their new baby together.

Still, for all the clunky and awkward moments – and there are too many of those here – How Do You Know still works much of the time.  A movie when James L. Brooks is coming in at 50% is nonetheless better than many directors’ A-game.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: December 25, 2010.


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