The trouble with many romantic comedy films is they commonly don’t get the dirt right. There are plenty of story maneuverings, romantic mayhem and situational silliness; think Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, films like that – but the part that keeps us emotionally vested and rooting for the couple, the part that holds all the other stuff together is hit or miss. This perceptible facet of character, this through line reveals the dirt under the nails, the doubt manifested bad choices, the part where the lead almost gets the girl but takes too long until the necessary plot point somewhere in the second act. Sure, the romantic comedy is formulaic if it is anything but the surface treatment of everydayness shouldn’t feel so ordinary.
In James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know”, all the parts are in place, the scenario and entanglements, the funny and the topical – corrupt wealthy businesspersons, star athletes competing on and off the field for love, affection and money, the inherent problems of dating at any age. Brooks is a veteran filmmaker with credits longer than any dozen reviews of his projects and celebrated for bringing A-list talent and hefty, though at times bloated budgets together. Yet even knowing going in that this is a Hollywood production and as such, the glint and polish are going to be just ahead of truthful, emotionally available characters, we commit because it looks right. Prolific cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and original music by Hans Zimmer add to the overall aesthetic. So why does it feel so contrived and unremarkable? It’s not that James L. Brooks’ sixth feature film in the director’s chair is bad; it just can’t bring the winning runner home or reach the bleachers before the game runs out.
I wanted to like this movie more than I did. I liked bits at a time, a line of dialog or posture, the romantic in me rooting for the couple, relating, empathizing. We expect the lives in film stories to be like our own only more interesting, sordid even, at times sullen, emotionally and psychologically burdened by experiences – good, bad or otherwise. We also expect a fair amount of humor, foolishness and romance given the genre because this mirrors what we need, what we believe in. When a film offers the same view of the same side of the street sans the detritus of living, the messy evidence of things that went wrong or maybe a bit off kilter on the way to right, we don’t buy in. Not even Jack Nicholson can elevate this film, nor Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson or Paul Rudd. The stars are out, the characters seemingly well-defined; it’s just cloudy all the time. Chance of intemperate weather, unknown.
How Do You Know is fundamentally about the elusive game of wits between couples. The couples are Lisa (Witherspoon) and Matty (Wilson), Lisa and George (Rudd) and an off-putting Charles Madison (Nicholson) who plays the father to his hapless, perhaps gullible son George. Once we know who all the players are the plot carries us from one series of bad happenings and near misses to another, charting both the failed and the failing until as the blurb for the DVD puts it, when everything else seems to be falling apart, things go right. If trite and cliché were in a room and a young attractive couple walked in, we might excuse the reduction of senses, the parboiled human condition for the sake of feeling good. We might even enjoy the simple saccharine of two people resisting the weight of the world to be apart and needed more than anything to be together, playing off shared experiences and searching for happiness as we oft do ourselves. We might go so far as to connect, however disparagingly for moments here and there that work even against all else. Only fans of the cast and filmmakers will likely be satisfied the most, no doubt find something redeeming; though one cannot divorce one self from wanting more.
Jack Nicholson is Jack Nicholson in this his second collaboration with Brooks. He doesn’t stretch or enliven the part of a wealthy, corrupt and un-fatherly businessman though he has a couple of scenes that eludes to one of Hollywood’s decades-long star attractions. This is not so much a measure of Nicholson’s immeasurable quality but rather an obvious lack of material. He’s just not given enough to do, much less say; George is the roadblock between the love interests and not a lot more. It would be OK if were a lesser actor in the role, a befuddled character actor curtailed by his youthful counterparts, but we want more from Nicholson because we know he has it in him. Witherspoon is believable enough but she remains detached most of the time, gaunt and exceedingly so, hardly the big hitter of the U.S national girl’s softball league who at 31 doesn’t pass go and doesn’t collect all the money. But this film is less about what you know or what the characters know, less about financial comfortableness and compatible relationships that work because they don’t not work. This film is about discovery and the places in life that still surprise, detour and how we get back on course or make a new road with this new-found sense of self. Sadly, not even when the guy gets the girl do we feel that we have reached the end of a satisfying journey in this film because the extraordinary of the ordinary leaves the film before we do.