A- Sound B Extras A
starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Jack Nicholson
written and directed by James L. Brooks
by Angelo Muredda "We're all one small adjustment away from making our lives work," Paul Rudd's George chirps, a little too eagerly, in the interminable, banally titled, and curiously unpunctuated How Do You Know. It's a strange thing for an indicted man on the verge of financial ruin to say, but then How Do You Know is a strange movie, less the tidy romantic comedy its trailer pitches than a monument to the incidental pleasures of narrative ungainliness and lax comic timing.
Writer-director James L. Brooks, still smarting from the critical drubbing of Armond White favourite Spanglish, clearly fancies his newest a return to the heady mix of professional drama and brainy romance he brewed in 1987's would-be Oscar darling Broadcast News. Fans of that film's low point, a series of on-the-nose flashbacks to its protagonists' childhoods, may eat up the new model's opening scene, which introduces neurotic sunflower Lisa (Reese Witherspoon, the Holly Hunter prototype) as a child discovering her penchant for softball, only to be pushed into home plate by a ruddy-faced boy. Career women and their foibles! The battle of the sexes! It's all here, only less so. In spite of its claim to the smart romcom throne Brooks has since bequeathed to pretenders like Jason Reitman, How Do You Know plays like bad, cancelled television, a protracted episode of "Friends" stitched onto a shoddy, late-run "Ally McBeal": it's gaudy, episodic, and quirky for quirk's sake. If that mix sounds tonally disjointed and vaguely interesting as a result, well, it is. Whatever pleasure can be gleaned from this $120 million curiosity (which Orlando Bloom, speaking from the equally tone deaf Elizabethtown, might charitably call a fi-ahsco), lies in the film's excess--its desperate, many-limbed gestures to genres it has no business aping.
The plot finds thirtysomething professional softball player Lisa waking to the news that she's been axed from Team USA. Compounding matters, Lisa doesn't know--and how do you know?--what to make of her developing relationship with gentle but shallow pro baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), who is sweet enough to fix milkshakes the morning after, but who also runs a veritable pyjama boutique for one-night stands out of his luxurious bathroom. ("I feel like I'm on an assembly line that's spitting out girls," she protests; "If you think about it, and I never did 'til now, we're all kind of on an assembly line," he replies, delighted at his sudden capacity for abstract thought.) Meanwhile, George, overall nice guy and executive at a mysterious firm that has something to do with Egyptian trading, learns he's the target of an unexplained fraud investigation on, what do you know, the eve of a blind date with Lisa. Struck by their respective calamites, they charge on with their date, a flop that nevertheless yields a number of chemistry-free returns. Among these is a trip to the hospital, where George's angelic assistant Annie (a pretty good Kathryn Hahn, making the most of a bad thing) has just given birth and lies anxiously awaiting the baby's unemployed father. Apart from this extended episode, which serves mostly to confirm that administrative assistants have problems, too, we are occasionally graced with the presence of a lethargic Jack Nicholson as Charles, George's shady father and even shadier CEO, who evidently knows a thing or two about his son's legal predicament. What to do? Who to choose? And how do you know?
Ludicrously overplotted, the film lurches between its variously overcooked and sketchily framed set-pieces. In an early scene, George, Charles, and Annie discuss the particulars of the indictment in alternating tight two-shots and wide views of an office that never looks the same in any two instances; at one point, Nicholson ends up across the room from where he was just standing. Large swaths of narrative are dropped without warning: Nicholson's grand reveal is inexplicably abandoned midway and revisited at the same spot minutes later, as if the film, also unclear on what exactly Charles and George do, had blacked out. What's more, DP Janusz Kaminski bathes everything in golden hues that suggest the presence of either perpetual tan lighting or multiple suns, turning the already-tanned Wilson and Witherspoon orange and leaving the comparatively pallid Rudd looking vampiric under his makeup-caked mortuary mask.
Wilson's Matty provides the sole texture in this candyfloss nightmare. Wilson, who has since become the first actor since Michael Caine to successfully weather a prolonged Woody Allen impression, finds pathos in a man who effectively live tweets his relationship, offering brief progress reports like "Good phone call!" and "Amazing sex!" to no one in particular. Wilson's Matty is self-satisfied without being smug, and his gentle insistence on being recognized for every emotional inch he grows--"This is breakthrough stuff for me!"--suggests more an innocent toddler than a stunted man-child. It's a warm and unexpectedly rich characterization, given the film's obvious stake in a Lisa-George outcome.
Wilson's co-stars are not so lucky. Nicholson drifts in and out of the movie (and sometimes the frame) in his half-dozen scenes; he's seemingly on hand only to earn the film its PG-13 rating with randomly-dropped profanity--another Brooks staple. Witherspoon acquits herself well enough in quieter moments, and makes a believable jock, but resorts to Carol Burnett-cribbed grimaces whenever broader strokes are required. But none suffer like Rudd, who is cruelly tasked with channelling The Apartment-era Jack Lemmon as an unhinged guy with a heart of gold. Although Rudd has been put to good use in comedies like Clueless and Knocked Up, movies that allow his innate decency to flow from his tartness, here he's asked to play an impossibly good man, sunny in the direst straits. Effortless when the role is right, Rudd is miscast in How Do You Know and consequently sweats his way through a series of manic limb-flailings and bland nice-guy truisms that seem to come from two different people. When the film asks us to buy his profound spiritual connection with Witherspoon, with whom he shares a tepid brotherly bond at best, we worry she might end up stashed in his fridge along with his precisely-labelled Tupperware meals.
Still, there's something appealing about the film's amiable shagginess, its insistence on being several bad movies instead of one perfectly serviceable, overproduced one. Brooks has never lacked for ambition, and while his mélange of sports comedy and father-son melodrama is largely unpalatable, there's some novelty in how he approaches each genre. Rudd and Nicholson's scenes together are mostly unsentimental, for instance, and a throwaway moment where Wilson surveys his pitching mechanics in an old, recorded game while sprawled out on his couch and texting is a nice, wordless respite from the rest of the film's gabbiness. Brooks's tendency to allow comic beats to last a few seconds too long, endemic of the oversized nature of the whole project, is also endearing. How Do You Know is in no rush to arrive at any one of its handful of conclusions, and if the journey is maddening, there's also fun to be had in its obstinate wandering.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sony presents How Do You Know on Blu-ray in a crisp 1.85:1, 1080p transfer that faithfully recreates the film's sun-baked aesthetic. Witherspoon enthusiasts can marvel at the eye-popping detail in Lisa's rumpled dress as she undergoes the walk of shame following a date with Matty, though the vividness of its red (bordering on electric pink) is almost too saturated. Black levels are strong throughout, while subtle grain--for Kaminski, very subtle--lends much-needed texture in moments like Annie's hospital-bed monologue. For what it's worth, it's a strong rendition of a flat-looking movie. Sound is also serviceable if unremarkable, tending to ground Rudd, et al's endless chattering and Hans Zimmer's subtle, lightly percussive theme in the front channels. Some depth is provided by the odd car horn and light kitchen sounds like Wilson shaking blueberries out of a plastic jar, but this is a dialogue-heavy track. Those who'd rather catch Comment savoir or its Spanish and Portuguese equivalents may enjoy 5.1 dubs of each.
In a surprising move, considering the film's commercial failure last winter, Sony has stacked this disc with a wealth of engaging supplementary material. First off is a revealing commentary track with Brooks and Kaminski. Brooks is honest about the picture's failings in a roundabout sort of way, acknowledging that entire scenes exist as setups for jokes he was too enamoured with to cut. Most revealing is his admission that at different points in the shoot, he envisioned How Do You Know as both "screwball" and realistic, a dichotomy that obviously got the better of him in the editing room, though he seems happy enough with the results. Kaminski comes across as sweet: he's open about the bum rap cinematographers tend to give to comedies and candid about the challenges they offer; he's also appreciative, as an ESL speaker, of Brooks's improbably long stretches of dialogue.
Next up is a scene-specific commentary with Brooks and Wilson that runs nearly 33 minutes in total. Wilson joins Brooks shortly after the previous track was recorded, and he was obviously intended to be a third participant there. Director and star are clearly on different wavelengths regarding the film, with Brooks frequently prompting Wilson to discuss his preparation for scenes the actor claims to have no memory of shooting. The result is a lot of dead air; eventually Wilson admits that this is the first time he's seeing How Do You Know. It's interesting, if only for what it reveals about Brooks's devotion to this project vs. Wilson's more relaxed approach.
As if How Do You Know was not long enough at just over 2 hours, Sony has provided 14 deleted scenes in 1080p running almost 30 minutes, all with optional commentary from Brooks, who never met a scene he didn't like. Many of these are deadweight, including a second extraneous flashback to Lisa's childhood that explains her fondness for Post-it notes, as well as a lengthy libertarian rant from Nicholson. Others, which show Lisa's training routine, go a long way towards fleshing out Witherspoon's performance.
Also on the disc is a lively 26-minute conversation between Brooks and Zimmer, parked in hideous velvet chairs in the latter's workspace. Mercifully, their conversation focuses more on their respective careers and long-term collaborative process than on this particular collaboration; among other strong anecdotes, we get an interesting discussion of how the test-screening process gutted their work on I'll Do Anything. Rounding out video features is a fluffy 15-minute promo piece with cast and crew interviews, an expendable 2-minute blooper reel, and a 2-minute blip about a cocktail George makes after his roughest day; all are in HD and the latter has optional commentary from Brooks, as if further input is required at this point. How Do You Know's very long screenplay is featured in a cumbersome interactive format, as is BD-Live connectivity, which mostly serves as a platform for other Sony trailers. Originally published: August 3, 2011.