With a recent influx of middling romantic comedies, it's easy to forget how different the genre used to be. Now very polished and only a success if it stars 40 different actors/actresses each with three minutes of screen time, movies including "Green Card" and "Crossing Delancey" showed a different side of things. Instead of drowning audiences in star power, they offered a down-to-earth and complex female individual with an unfortunate penchant for choosing the wrong guy. It was easy to figure out who to root for, but there was something more to it. It may have been the comfortable aura the movies had about them, or the fact that their protagonists looked more like real people than, say, Jessica Alba or Jennifer Garner. James L. Brooks did it even better, delving into all characters and really seeing what made them tick. It's easy to forget him; while he's not a stranger to romantic comedies he's more like a visitor, making a film once every few years before going back into hiding. His peak was with 1997's "As Good As It Gets," which garnered two Oscars for its leads along with a slew of other nominations, but 2004's "Spanglish" was largely ignored and forgotten. He returns six years later with the regrettably titled "How Do You Know," a typically pleasant diversion from the usual fare but not without its problems.
In a nice little throwback to "Broadcast News," "How Do You Know" starts similarly with young Lisa taking her first swing at a ball, nestled on a batting tee. An impressive montage ensues, quickly going through her crescendo of sports success right up to present day Reese Witherspoon, secure in her position on the USA Women's softball team. That is, until the managers decide that she must be cut due to her recent decline in skill. Matty (Owen Wilson), a player on the Nationals, courts Lisa regularly and, at least to her, is a steady thing. He encourages her to be more enthusiastic about things (mainly things concerning him) and overall has a very dopey, naive attitude, which doesn't stop her from moving in with him. Enter George (Paul Rudd), a young business exec working for his father (Jack Nicholson, see the resemblance?) who finds himself caught in a nasty lawsuit for something he wasn't even aware of, something which he may not even be responsible for. Confusing? A bit, and not even George has time to mull it over before being dumped by his girlfriend. Now while George and Lisa haven't officially met, a mutual friend attempted to set them up previously, even though they were both taken. That considered, it doesn't stop him from inviting her out to dinner, hoping to take his mind off things and maybe even start a new relationship. The two leave the meal in better moods, but instantly fall headfirst into their problems, proving the "date" to have been nothing more than a brief diversion. However, other things are brewing, and their paralleling stories deepen their relationship and ultimately bore a love triangle.
If it sounds a bit much, it is, and if it sounds boring, well, it kinda is. Both the direction and the acting never find their footing in the arduous set up, which goes on far too long before finally kicking into gear. Each character in the said triangle have very separate lives, which keeps things at a very slow pace. There are constant scenes with Rudd and a friend or Witherspoon with a friend, characters who never really ever get involved in the main thrust of the plot. Also, although it is properly confusing, George's legal troubles barely feel like they have any sort of weight, and it's certainly not enough to warrant all of the scenes dedicated to outlining his "tragic" fall from grace. Rudd tries his best, but for some reason treats his $300,000 legal fees and possible jail time as if he was a high school nobody who just blew an opportunity with a Emma Stone. It's a romantic comedy so yes, he should be relatively light, but it should also be believable.
George runs into Lisa again, discovering she has moved in with Matty. Discouraged, George remains chivalrous and helps the lady with some bags which, in turn, causes a rupture in the couple's relationship that sends Lisa packing and, consequently, George chasing. It took some time, but finally the performers are meshing, playing off one another with an undeniable amount of chemistry. Times when Brooks drops the lackluster solo stories and instead focuses on the relationships are the most enjoyable, though the director is able to salvage the less-interesting points with this newfound energy. Wilson gets the best treatment, though, with lines tailored to his comedic diction akin to Albert Brooks' character in "Broadcast News."
The weakest link would have to be Witherspoon, who coasts by in typical fashion and basically plays the same character delegated to most actresses of this genre. How much you like her is basically how much you can tolerate both the stock character and Witherspoon herself. It's not to be blamed on her, though, but on Brooks as a writer, who never goes deep enough into her psyche and instead has her simply falling for the wrong guy and sometimes babbling like an airhead. A main character so underwritten is one hard to root for.
However, credit must be given where it is due, and despite other minor gripes in the writing and directing, Brooks does hit some rather genuine moments. The cream of the crop involves George and Lisa rushing to see the former's secretary, who has just given birth out of wedlock. Her boyfriend, ordering the other two to video his speech, goes into a heartfelt proposal that is so touching and real that you forget that this is essentially just a romantic comedy. Rudd and Witherspoon share a quiet moment, one that is interrupted after it is revealed that it was not, in fact, recorded. An immensely playful scene occurs next, with the four scrambling to recreate the beautiful moment so they could record it proper. It's refreshing to see these characters have a sense of humor about themselves, it feels human.
"How Do You Know" is a fairly mixed bag, but if expectations are lowered there's some fun to be had. Easy to please with a squeaky clean and overly moral ending, this should be a decent choice for the family if they refuse all of the other, mostly better theater suggestions you offer up this holiday season. [C+]