[17 December 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He brings the considerable weight of successful stints on both the small (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons) and big (Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets) screens - earning three Oscars and a staggering eighteen Emmys in the process. His female lead is the likeable star of such solid efforts as Walk the Line (where she received her own Academy glory), Legally Blonde, and Election. In support are a pair of likeable Hollywood leading men and an old guard great who carries his own considerable awards season credibility. So why is it then that How Do You Know stumbles? How can so many talented people make such an ultimately middling effort? The answer, oddly enough, has very little to do with what’s actually happening on camera.
Over the last decade, Tinseltown has been involved in a crass starlet feeding frenzy, focusing almost obsessively on turning every bright, new CW/MTV friendly face into a Romantic Comedy lead. The death of the genre has been a slow, unsettling process, a combination of mainstream mediocrity and the determined dumbing down of the overall artform. As movies have gotten more stupid and pandering, the RomCom has suffered exponentially. It’s at the point now where the entire ‘boy meets girl’ formula feels as ancient and tattered as Victorian paper doll. Between the single digital IQ plotting, the need for senseless slapstick, and the mechanical grind of the always over-pat narrative, the once viable chick flick has become a beacon of bad moviemaking.
So it’s great to see writer/director James L. Brooks avoiding many of the category’s pitfalls. He doesn’t introduce an acerbic best friend (gay or otherwise) who acts as groan-inducing Greek Chorus to all the goings on. He doesn’t derive a “meet-cute” moment so much as meta out his entire characterization to the point where everything his formidable foursome does in cloyingly self-evident. We don’t just have normal people living lives of quiet comic desperation here. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is, somehow, one of the few upwardly mobile and consistently successful female softball players…ever! Her crisis comes when the newest coach of the US Olympic Team drops her from the squad, suggesting that no girl athlete in her early 30s is still viable and valuable (Messageboard Nation and the PC crowd has already free associated on that sentiment).
She is currently involved with a goofy grinning star pitching ace (Owen Wilson) whose as casual with this laugh as he is with his sense of moral responsibility. He loves Lisa…like how he loves seeing himself on ESPN. He’s not capable of committing, just making the latest Miss Right feel wanted and desirable. When their relationship hits one of those mandated rocky points, Lisa gets a call from George (Paul Rudd), a genial guy with a huge problem on his hands. Apparently, the company he runs for his domineering dad (Jack Nicholson) is under investigation by the Feds. It looks like he will be indicted, and when his uber-intellectual girlfriend bails on their potentially problematic pairing, he’s looking for a connection. He wonders if Lisa will fit the bill.
Sadly, he’s the only one who’s unsure. The audience has them together long before the final scene. While not a complete letdown, the standard storytelling cliches employed by Brooks for his otherwise clever take on the material turn How Do You Know into an exercise in aggravation. The dialogue is so pointed, so focused in both its insight and subtle wit that when one of those clunky cinematic truisms steps in to ruin the mood, we are thrown off by the effect. We don’t mind the overreaching nature of everyone’s issues - only Wilson has a less than significant life crisis - and the acting is spot on. But Brooks constantly undermines his own approach, falling into patterns bastardized by the stunted studio suits of the last few years. It’s like watching a Mensa member and a moron debate.
When the only surprises your story has to offer come in the form on occasionally smart conversations, you know you need to rethink your genre devotion. The Romantic Comedy is so hampered right now that How Do You Know initially feels like a godsend. But when you look beneath the shiny surface, when you peel back the grrrl power grunt in Witherspoon’s motives or unlock the sad sack slump of Rudd’s beleaguered executive, you discover petty people with even pettier problems. An aging athlete unable to come to terms with the end of their career? Turn the sport and gender and you’ve got the Brett Favre story. An innocent businessman bullied into the taking the rap for a bunch of old boy wrongdoers? We’ve never seen that before, right?
Indeed, Brooks’ main failing is in not finding something new to say about his potential paramours. These are people who barely think about everyday pitfalls, who handle money troubles and psychological complaints with a “wait until the next scene and see” approach. Even a seasoned vet like Nicholson tries too hard, playing both against and with type in an attempt to turn his shrill, patronizing parent into something akin to a likeable scheming schlub. In fact, there are a lot of mixed signals in How Do You Know. Wilson’s baseballer talks monogamy, but then makes it very clear he’s thinks the concept is only temporary. Rudd realizes he’s in deep trouble, yet handles the pressing legal dilemma with a “what, me worry?” dismissiveness. Even Witherspoon’s momentary career catastrophe ends up being one of those mandated epiphanies that teaches her little if anything at all.
We expect more substance from Brooks. After all, he’s the kind of miracle worker who made Helen Hunt a viable dramatic screen presence. Yet ever since his plans for a modern musical (I’ll Do Anything) were subverted by bad focus group responses and screening test scores, he’s treaded water. How Do You Know is like As Good As It Gets without the OCD gimmick to give it gravitas. Like his last big screen struggle, the less than successful Spanglish, Brooks appears to be full of ideas but unable to realize them as effortlessly as he had before. Nothing undermines the entertainment value of an item faster than watching it work way too hard for very little return. If anyone could have saved the stagnant cinematic genre, it would be Brooks. Sadly, How Do You Know is as creatively confused as its title.