The requirements a romantic comedy must meet to be considered a quality product are flimsy. If there’s one genre of film that manages to suck more than any other, it’s that one, so when I see one I know I’m going to recommend, I inevitably wonder if it’s because it’s actually good or if I’m just lowering my standards in response to the cavalcade of garbage I’ve sat through. In the case of How Do You Know, I think it may be the latter. Despite having James L. Brooks, director of As Good as It Gets and the underappreciated Spanglish, at the helm, How Do You Know is a mixed bag of delight and dismay.
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, a gold medalist softball player who is about to find out she has been cut from the team. Her new boyfriend, Matty, played by Owen Wilson, is the star pitcher on the Washington Nationals, whose team seems to make spectacular plays in front packed stadiums (which solidifies that this is indeed a work of fiction). But when one of Lisa’s friends gives George, played by Paul Rudd, her number, she finds herself in a love triangle. Like herself, George needs some comfort because he has just been subpoenaed and is under investigation for securities fraud, though he honestly doesn’t know why. He has done nothing wrong. So Lisa finds herself torn and tries to juggle both relationships, though one is clearly working more than the other.
Also thrown in the mix is Jack Nicholson playing George’s father. The cast Brooks wrangled up for How Do You Know is impressive. All are great talents and provide different attributes to the film. Wilson is the funny one, Witherspoon is the sweet one, Nicholson is the mean and selfish one and Rudd is the all around pleasant one, making it easy to understand why Witherspoon could fall for him even though he may see jail time. They’re all wonderful in their roles; they’re just not given much to do.
The characters all seem to be walking a loop, especially Lisa who leaves Matty, then comes back, then leaves again, then thinks better of it and so on. The story aside from the immediate love story is inconsequential, including the entire subplot about the investigation where we find George’s father may have played a part in his downfall. How Do You Know runs nearly two hours long and I could have pointed out a good thirty minutes that could have been cut without losing the overall effect. One long winded scene, for instance, has George handling a video recorder while a minor character gives a sappy speech. But whoops! He forgot to turn it on, so the characters repetitively play through it all again so they can capture it on tape.
How Do You Know is one of the most uneven films of the year, boring you to sleep one moment and charming the pants off you the next. Undeterred by the cumbersome screenplay, the natural charisma of the talent shines through and by the end, I was surprised how much I had come to care about the characters, despite the irksome Lisa, who is essentially a walking proverb, always spouting off some stupid phrase. It’s not particularly funny and its contrivances almost pull it under, as is the case with most rom-coms, but the final moments of the film seal the deal. The last shot in particular, which will remain unspoiled, is utterly beautiful. Without it, my score may have dipped and How Do You Know would have missed a recommendation. That shot is the perfect ending to an imperfect film.
How Do You Know receives 2.5/5