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How Do You Know Early Reviews: "Disappointment," "Separation From Real Life," "Purged of Charisma"

by Anne Thompson
December 15, 2010 9:51 AM
6 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

What went wrong with James L. Brooks' latest, How Do You Know? The 70-year-old writer-director has been painstakingly crafting one brilliant confection after another ever since his film debut in 1983 with Larry McMurtry's tragicomedy Terms of Endearment, starring the great Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson, which won five Oscars including best picture. Brooks went on to score audience and critical hits with 1987's Broadcast News (seven Oscar nominations) and 1997's As Good As It Gets (two more wins). But he did stumble with the one-time musical I'll Do Anything (he took out all the songs), and his last costly dud, Spanglish, starring Adam Sandler as a chef. And now How Do You Know is just about unwatchable. (Check out early reviews below; the movie opens Friday.)

How does someone with such impeccable comic instincts lose his timing as well as his connection with the audience? It happens to everyone, eventually, especially in comedy, when directors and stars seem to have a limited window in the zone. This movie seems so divorced from any semblance of reality, so disconnected, so inert. The characters are concocted, they don't ring true, and we don't care about the things they are worrying about. What did the studio that has backed Brooks for decades, Sony, think of this script? What about the actors?

This is a career disaster for Reese Witherspoon, an Oscar-winning actress who has stumbled since Walk the Line and needs a flop like a hole in the head. The movie starts out promisingly with her fielding the blow of getting cut from her baseball team. OK, taking a feminine angle on an aging athlete might work. What will she do?

Well, she starts an affair with a cocky baseball player (Owen Wilson) and engages with a sad sack businessman (Paul Rudd) who is in deep trouble with his company, the government and his father (Jack Nicholson). This plot goes south very fast, until we are lost in the intricacies of Rudd's relationship with his corrupt prick of a father (Nicholson's worst performance since The Missouri Breaks) and his half-infatuation with Witherspoon, who seems to have no idea how she feels about any of her romantic interests. Nor do they. She shares some chemistry with Wilson, but none with Rudd. Is this a romantic triangle? Not really. It's been a long time since I have so wanted to flee from having to spend time with any of the characters in a movie. You could feel the energy and good will leaving the theater like air out of a balloon.

By contrast, comedy writer-director Nancy Meyers is still working at the top of her game (and getting hefty budgets too, although not of this magnitude, a reported $120 million). She succeeds because she is writing about characters and milieus (albeit wealthy) that she knows and cares about. She's able to make her comedies personal. That's why we can engage with her characters and laugh with them.

Part of what went wrong here is the need for a filmmaker of Brooks' stature to justify a huge budget and salary and deliver a broad commercial entertainment. Why can't the studios read the tea leaves and recognize that their old economic model doesn't work anymore? Paying talent their top quote ($50 million went to the stars on this one) is no longer justified unless it's a major tentpole. Movies like The Fighter and Black Swan turn out better because they are made outside the system. Somehow, on this non-comedy everyone got lost along the way and wound up with a picture that will please no one.

Marshall Fine:

"Romantic, yes, and, again, funny at times. But How Do You Know is more about the shifts – tectonic and otherwise – in relationships that shake the participants, who assumed the relationship was stable and unshakable…How Do You Know is an adult romance, one that blends wit and melancholy, sweetness and disappointment. It’s probably too studied in its approach – too formal visually, too deliberate in its pacing – to grab a mass audience. But there are pleasures – many of them, in fact – if you’re willing to let them come to you."

THR's Todd McCarthy:

"a low-impact romantic comedy-drama from James L. Brooks in which the central characters are strangely disconnected from one another as well as from the audience…While not as bad as his last outing, Spanglish, six years ago, it nonetheless shares the same sense of separation from real life,…Suppressing her natural can-do personality, Witherspoon plays a more neurotic and conflicted character than usual for her,…if not for [her] radiant, spirited presence, How Do You Know would be a difficult sit indeed. The three leading men are all appealing but go easy routes here: Rudd muggs, Wilson preens, and Nicholson, sounding quite raspy-voiced, pushes well-known buttons."

Box Office Magazine's Mark Keizer:

"Wilson is the best thing in the movie. He's a cad, but in his own endearingly narcissistic way he's really trying. If only Wilson's smile, the one that makes women do things they know they shouldn't, could connect with Witherspoon's charm, which has been replaced with tentativeness, confusion and the exaggerated facial expressions of a sitcom comedienne…film gets too close in quality to the Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston junk that Brooks is supposed to save us from."

NYMag's David Edelstein:

"Reese Witherspoon works her big jaw and pops her eyes…She’s going for Mary Tyler Moore but comes off like a blonde, overcaffeinated morning-talk-show hostess. Paul Rudd plays the adorable young corporate executive unjustly accused of fraud who tries to win Reese by being moony and clutchy and parading his insecurities—normally a good way to get slapped with a restraining order but here meant to seem irresistible. As the sweet but slow-witted pro-baseball horndog who turns possessive whenever Reese shows signs of independence, Owen Wilson takes something off his delivery, and his wobbly curve balls catch the side of the plate: Playing the dumb guy, he’s the only one who shows any intelligence…[Jack Nicholson] has never looked less like a movie star. Seeing Nicholson purged of charisma, you know there’s a rupture in the space-time continuum…The sad part is that How Do You Know is nowhere near as dumb as it looks. A couple of comic set pieces are inspired—or would be, if Brooks’s timing weren’t off."

The Boston Phoenix's Brett Michel:

"It's strange that James L. Brooks should take so long to make his movies…It's even more disappointing that he still mines the easy jokes, pandering sentimentality, and predictability of sit-coms. Where's the Brooks of Broadcast News?…Six years in the making and this is As Good As It Gets?"


6 Comments

  • KayeK | December 26, 2010 3:53 AMReply

    Painfully awful. How do you know.... it's bad until you pay, sit there and get through it? Couldn't wait until it was over so I could go home and forget about it. Despite a good cast, no one was able to pull this flick out of the dumpster. I don't see it lasting too long in the theatres.

  • Ryan | December 19, 2010 8:28 AMReply

    I just saw "How Do You Know" and I really enjoyed it. Here's the thing: it's not a movie. It doesn't work as a movie, it has no first act, many of the characters' motivations are absurd, but what Brooks is doing here--taking these three characters (all of whom I love even if they are essentially cardboard cut-outs, save Owen Wilson) and just kind of spending some time with them--it's, to me, such a breath of fresh air.

    I've seen 'Inception,' I've seen 'The Fighter' and 'Winter's Bone' and it's great when a film works perfectly, but isn't anyone interesting in watching someone try and fail? Isn't that what art is about--having the opportunity to fail, with $120 million?

    It is so safe to construct a plot that hits all these essential emotional moments, and yes, by all conventional accounts 'How Do You Know' is a failure, but Brooks is REALLY TRYING, and anything he could do to improve the script would be to make it more formulaic, and I see how he is resisting that, and how he HOPED the acting would save it, and it doesn't, but what I'm saying is, there is a way for 'How Do You Know' to be a different movie, a movie that is diverting, and pleasant, and does all the things a romantic comedy promises and makes us LOVE the characters nd because 'How Do You Know' avoids all of these things, it shows a great deal of respect for the audience, and it is a success. I mean, it IS a failure, and it's lack is inspiring.

  • Anne Thompson | December 19, 2010 4:41 AMReply

    I guess you could argue that Sony has the right to throw $110 million (that seems to be the real figure) at a movie like How Do You Know? And I recognize Brooks' imperative to try NOT to follow the dictates of formula. Several times over the years gifted actors have managed to make his edgy characters likable, allowed us to empathize with their foibles, from Holly Hunter and Bill Hurt in Broadcast News to Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in As Good As it Gets. In those cases, Brooks' method worked.

    Woody Allen follows the same concept: write great characters and the best actors will come. But he does it at an entirely different budget level. When a studio banks on a movie at $110 million and it fails, that makes it harder for the next one to get made. Sony passed on Soderbergh's Moneyball; Paramount passed on The Fighter but it came out better as a result.

    The Coens and others have gotten away with idiosyncratic daring filmmaking by keeping their budgets low. So did Ben Affleck with The Townm figuring better to have a success on a modest budget than a failure on a big budget. Why don't more people see it this way? It's as though spending money were a hedge against failure. But it's not. Where did $110 million go on How Do You Know? It's a talking heads movie! It makes me crazy--no one believes that Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd put $50 million worth of butts in seats. That's what you pay stars multi-millions for. Right?

  • Sergio | December 16, 2010 3:06 AMReply

    I have no interest in this one whatsoever. it w always looked like a generic, tedious, routine, shot-entirely-on-the-studio-back-lot, romantic comedy from 1962 that would have starred Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis back then. And nobody would have cared about it back then either. It's like Brooks has been in a time wrap. And that bland forgettable title isn't helping either.

    $120 million for what and $50 million of that just to pay the four leads. I thought there was a recession going on

  • Richard Tarle | December 16, 2010 1:20 AMReply

    Wait for the box office jury. It's Reese Witherspoon and the holidays could float this romantic comedy---but no Oscars for this one sadly.

  • Ryan | December 15, 2010 11:57 AMReply

    This is a real shame.

    I think Sony bet on James L. Brooks because he's a legend and it's difficult to dismiss that "As Good As It Gets" won Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars and was nominated for every major award. That just doesn't HAPPEN with romantic comedies. I bet it's a lot more fun to run an Oscar campaign for a feel-good movie than a three-hour WWII epic.

    It's worth noting that after "Broadcast News" Brooks made the disaster "I'll Do Anything," followed by "As Good As It Gets" and then another flop, "Spanglish." He was due for a hit here and it's not like he's asking for $120 million every two years, but every six or seven.

    Amy Pascal makes enough tough business decisions, it's nice that she'll give Brooks the money. Maybe next time though she'll let Soderbergh make "Moneyball" and leave Brooks with a paltry $80 million. (I'll never get over that "Moneyball" incident)

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