How Do You Know the latest dramedy from writer/director James L. Brooks (As Good As It Gets Spanglish) pulsates with strangeness. Characters talk at each other blathering on about their various problems in conversations punctuated by uncomfortable pauses shot at odd angles by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (!) and set to a unnervingly sentimental score by Hans Zimmer (!). Jokes are set up and not delivered or delivered without any set-up making you wonder whether they were intended as jokes in the first place. Is How Do You Know deliberately strange or accidentally so? If it weren’t so dreadfully boring I might care to know.
The story centers on two people cast adrift by recent career bombshells: Hardy softball star Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is rudderless after discovering she’s been cut by the National Team; earnest but neurotic businessman George (Paul Rudd) is floored by federal indictment which exiles him from the company his father (a weary laryngitic Jack Nicholson) heads. Lisa and George are meant to end up together — at least this is what Brooks tells us without ever making a convincing argument as to why — but their eventual pairing is delayed by Lisa’s meandering relationship with Matty (Owen Wilson) a pitcher for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals.
In Matty one finds How Do You Know’s most compelling feature. As a successful professional athlete he is polyamorous by nature — it’s the only life he’s known. But he’s no scheming womanizer a la Tiger Woods. An accidental — and exceedingly polite — narcissist beautiful women flock to him offering sex without strings and he graciously welcomes their company. In Lisa he’s found someone with whom he genuinely wants to settle down but he can’t seem to figure out how to square it with is existing values system. Love the monogamous variety is a legitimately alien notion to him. It’s a role perfectly suited for Wilson looking a tad weathered but still chock full of easy charisma.
Love — or the expression of it at least — is not a problem for George. He absolutely adores Lisa. We know this because he informs her of this repeatedly. Other times he simply stares at her for extended periods. Why Lisa would find such palpably creepy overtures appealing we’ll never know. Certainly Brooks never bothers to explain. With How Do You Know he has achieved what many thought impossible: He has drained Paul Rudd entirely of his charm. James L. Brooks is Rudd’s kryptonite.
Much of Brooks’ career has been predicated on The Zinger and at this late stage it may be all that he has left. There are certainly several memorable lines to be found in How Do You Know — enough to make for a convincing trailer at least — but they achieve a fraction of their intended impact mainly because Brooks seems too tired to provide much context for them or to add layers and depth to the characters uttering them. And there are aren’t nearly enough of them to sustain a film that has precious little else to offer.