How do you know when your career has taken a dip? Writer-director James L. Brooks can take his pick of signs: scathing reviews or anemic box office, both of which greeted his romantic comedy How Do You Know, a leisurely paced love triangle about ballplayers Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) and Matty (Owen Wilson) and businessman George (Paul Rudd), all not doing very much. Except, that is, talk: Lisa, adrift after getting cut from her pro softball team, tries to sort out her feelings with Matty, who struggles to perform as a sort-of boyfriend. George, meanwhile, has a disastrous first date with Lisa amidst a deeper personal crisis: he’s about to be indicted for shady business dealings he knows nothing about. These are characters with situations more than stories; audiences (and a lot of critics) want stories.
Unfortunately, DVD releases aren’t built to reflect on a movie’s reception; these commentaries, like most, were recorded before a film had even been released, so Brooks has no occasion to consider why audiences and critics reacted with such indifference; he can only explain his process and enjoy the results. After cracking up with Wilson (who turns up for a separate, selective commentary on his scenes only, an act of honesty that surely must have tempted other actors before him), Brooks jokes, “This must be what the Ocean’s 12 commentary is like—just good times.”
There’s more than just good times, though. Listening to Brooks talk about his work during commentaries and behind-the-scenes features, you begin to understand how years of work can result in a movie where not very much happens. Brooks explains his labyrinthine writing process, which includes months spent on research for relatively minor elements (such as the five or ten minutes of screentime given to softball, for which Witherspoon underwent heavy training), and expanding what was initially a one-scene character (Wilson’s Matty) into the movie’s third lead.
It’s easy to see how he might get lost in all of the talk and character and rearranging, and forget to whisk the story along. As such, the movie takes 30-minutes for Lisa and George to get to a single disastrous date, and another half-hour or so for them to even meet a second time—though even in its meandering, How Do You Know feels, at just two hours, a little trimmer and lighter than other recent Brooks features like Spanglish and As Good As It Gets.
Nonetheless, this is the unmistakable work of an older, rustier filmmaker. During his most recent absence from directing (he’s been averaging a movie every seven years or so), Brooks was more or less replaced by another TV writer turned chronicler of observant human-scale comedy. Audiences accustomed to the naturalistic improv flow of Judd Apatow dialogue will probably blanch at the relentless self-reflection of How Do You Know. Brooks’ dialogue is still funny, but has odd writerly clangs (“you’ve done me a great turn,” Rudd says at one point—he sells it, but chalk that up to Rudd’s way with goofiness) and some scenes lack the snappy rhythm of his best banter.
It may be an editing problem more than a writing one; perhaps the movie suffered one or two too many recuts. On the commentary, Brooks talks about filming take after take for the entrance of Jack Nicholson, playing George’s imposing father and, oddly, the weakest link of the ensemble. Nicholson huffs and puffs through a thin and ill-conceived role, but Brooks just goes on about how he “jazzes the atmosphere” of every scene, missing the movie’s clumsiest moments.
The jarring contrast with modern comedies is intensified by Brooks working with younger actors than he has in years, including Apatow-circle performers like Rudd and Wilson. He even employs cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, just as Apatow did for his particularly Brooksian (if more bravely unlikable) Funny People. For the latter, Apatow’s contemplations were infused with Kaminski’s washed-out white-light style; in How Do You Know, he seems to have been hired simply to make the colors a bit brighter and the stars particularly pretty (and to minimally participate on the commentary track).
Yet after so many sitcom-lit rom-com nightmares, the simple slick-studio look of How Do You Know registers as an almost old-fashioned pleasure. Similarly, the movie makes classical use of movie-star charm: Rudd, Witherspoon, and Wilson not only look great, but use their personalities to create likable versions of characters that might otherwise turn toxic. Rudd has a number of perfect (and perfectly Ruddtastic) moments of nervous physical comedy. Here Brooks’ old-fashioned instincts turn into a nimble, and unexpectedly self-aware strength: Rudd’s inspired casting as a man “a bit out of time”, as Brooks describes him, with “innate decency”.
Because of this decency, Rudd and Witherspoon forge the increasingly rare sensation of actually wanting two rom-com characters to get together, stripped of the genre’s usual machinations. That includes any villainous motivations from Wilson’s caddish Matty, who gets an understanding, humanist treatment. The characters’ reflective natures and unhurried pace are, if unusual, preferable to the yammering cliches of so many movies supposedly pitched to adults.
In short, Brooks skewing old and slow is no more contemptible than everyone else skewing young; it’s actually sort of a relief How Do You Know is neither as raucously funny nor as emotionally clearheaded as the best recent Apatow pictures (or other recent, affecting comedy-dramas like Adventureland), but it is amusing, sweet, and, at its best, genuinely romantic. Brooks may stumble out of step, but he hasn’t quite lost his footing.