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Movie Review

How Do You Know

Brooks brings Type A personalities, but not his A game

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 17, 2010

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Usually, any movie that asks us to believe that Reese Witherspoon plays for the US softball team would be a fantasy or a work of science fiction. In “How Do You Know,’’ Witherspoon actually looks the part. We don’t glimpse her character, Lisa, on the field, but she can be an athletic talker — curt, blunt, rushed. Lisa gets cut from the team; at 31, she’s been deemed too old. Now what?

This is a good start to an interesting comedy about a woman in crisis. But it just bounces her between two men. Lisa’s sport is softball. The movie’s is table tennis.

Lisa’s low moment is compounded by her acquaintance with George (Paul Rudd), a nice, soft-seeming executive who’s just found out he’s being indicted for securities fraud. They meet over the phone when he calls to cancel a blind date. Then they don’t stop running into each other. But she’s just moved in with Matty (Owen Wilson), a Washington Nationals pitcher with a spacious apartment and a highly lubricated ego.

James L. Brooks wrote and directed “How Do You Know,’’ and in addition to forgetting a question mark, he’s also misplaced his point. Rather than use romantic and familial relationships in order to tell us a story about how a corner of the world works — as he did with “Terms of Endearment’’ (mothers and daughters), “Broadcast News’’ (TV journalism), “I’ll Do Anything’’ (the movie business), “Spanglish’’ (parenting) — he’s decided to make a cute movie about banal transitional moments — the moment, apparently, you transition from a guy you sort of like to one you like a little more.

Brooks did the same with “As Good as It Gets,’’ a gimmicky, painfully mawkish movie in which Helen Hunt gave one heartbreaking speech about being broke. The movie was a hit, in part, because it showed us stubborn people learning to be a little more flexible. Really, that’s the tension in all of Brooks’s work. No one in American movies has written better Type A characters, the sort of people who cover their bathroom mirror in Post-Its the way Lisa does (she shares her name with the only ambitious character on “The Simpsons,’’ a show that, for decades, Brooks has produced). The experiment in the new movie is this: What happens when his Type A’s are forced out of their comfort zones? If only Brooks had managed to leave his. “How Do You Know’’ feels like a collection of scenarios he’s done better.

After George learns he might be indicted, he gets drunk at his townhouse and sings, into a lamp, along with Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn Off the Lights’’ (“Let’s take a shower . . . together/ I’ll wash your body, you wash mine’’). It’s funny, but it’s also exactly what a bitter Albert Brooks did with “Midnight Train to Georgia’’ in “Broadcast News.’’ There that moment felt appropriately pathetic.

Later, when Lisa joins George for lunch in their first in-person meeting, it’s awkward. They’ve both just gotten their respective bad news. He wants to emote. She finds his chattiness exasperating and vetoes talking altogether. “Do you know I don’t know you?’’ she snaps. So they eat beside each other in silence. All of Brooks’s movies have a moment like this, in which a woman basically tells a man to shut it. This is the first time that exchange has felt false. George’s desperation to share his dilemma would seem to be what Lisa needs to take her mind off of hers. But Brooks is looking for the quirks in these people, and he’s located in Lisa a fear of emotional intimacy that the movie isn’t quite insightful enough to dramatize.

“How Do You Know’’ is operating in three different worlds — business, sports, and love. It’s not firmly planted in any. There’s also an involved subplot with George’s pregnant assistant (Kathryn Hahn). It’s a sign of Brooks’s lingering reputation that the studio allowed him to keep so many of these scenes. Rather than deepen this movie, they prolong it.

The film’s rumored $100 million budget might have hemmed Brooks in a bit. I don’t know where it went, either (does turning parts of Philadelphia into Washington cost that much?). Either way, the movie certainly takes no risks with it. Brooks has gone too broad. There’s a lot of cutesy business with overly punctual buses, chummy doormen, and a marriage proposal in a hospital. George’s father and boss (Jack Nicholson, a likable sleaze) lives in Matty’s building so, naturally, Lisa runs into George in the elevator.

Some of this is like middling Billy Wilder. Witherspoon, Wilson, and especially Rudd do good work, but their lightness here evokes decent network television, not two hours of big-screen romantic comedy. Brooks might have veered too far from who he knows. At 70, he’s writing characters at least 30 years younger than he is, but they feel like impressions of young people. And his stars each seem 10 years younger than they are. Prolonged youth might finally be robbing the movies of gravitas. You watch Lisa and George and fret. Where are the grown-ups?

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

related

'How do you know'

Understanding romance

“How Do You Know,’’ director James Brooks says he spends a lot of time thinking about romance, so he’s happy to share his perspective.

HOW DO YOU KNOW Written and directed by: James L. Brooks

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Kathyrn Hahn, and Jack Nicholson

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 116 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual content and some strong language)

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