Title: How Do You Know
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Director: James L. Brooks
Screenwriters: James L. Brooks
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson
James L. Brooks’ characters are always hashing out their neuroses before your eyes. He is their therapist — the kind who thinks that everything is going to be okay if they would just be honest with themselves; if, in the words of a therapist character in How Do You Know, they would “figure out what they want and learn to ask for it.” In As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s OCD-afflicted curmudgeon finds true fulfillment in making Helen Hunt the focus of his world. The perpetually insecure, exasperated protagonists in this new film find a measure of happiness by getting in touch, under Brooks’ fatherly tutelage, with their own heart’s desires.
As anyone who remembers Brooks’ patronizing, borderline offensive Spanglish can attest, this brand of benevolent condescension can get annoying pretty quickly. Indeed, those who aren’t at least somewhat in sync with Brooks’s comic sensibility are likely to have their patience tested by How Do You Know, a fidgety, high-strung romantic comedy about dealing with disappointment and change. Its characters are angsty and needy as all hell, and the doctor is most definitely in.
The patients are George (Paul Rudd) and Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), thirtysomethings in crisis who wind their way inexorably into each other’s arms over the course of the film’s 113 minutes. George is a business executive undone by a pathological sweetness and naiveté that led to him being fingered for accounting fraud committed by his endlessly disingenuous father (Jack Nicholson, coasting through a role he could do in his sleep). Lisa is a competitive softball player who falls in with a narcissistic baseball star (Owen Wilson) after being cut from the olympic team at age 31. Brooks wants us to ask why Lisa is wasting her time with Wilson’s preening, clueless golden boy, but he is so comically wrong for her that he functions as a neon sign that blares “CRIPPLING SELF-DOUBT.”
This would all be brutal if Brooks wasn’t a fairly irresistible comic impresario. His movies are built around unexpected, often incongruous confessions and outbursts: smart, decent people losing it at regular intervals. Few screenwriters do this so well. I can’t think of another movie moment in 2010 as anarchically alive as when Annie (Kathryn Hahn), George’s kind, pregnant, adoring secretary gets fed up with a nasty Nicholson tirade and winds up to punch him in the head from behind. Not as a joke or an angry feint, but for real — George has to stop her. It’s a prototypically Brooks-ian gag, which he uses both to get laughs and as a rather daring form of emotional signposting, frustrating viewers who crave subtlety above all. And it’s in sync with Brooks’s therapeutic posture: doesn’t it help sometimes to just do or say what you’re thinking?
As a corollary, Brooks creates a compelling rhythm out of the build-up and release of his characters’ frustrations. Nearly every story beat is occasioned by such a release: when George and Lisa finally meet, it’s because George is sick of everyone and everything in his life and literally runs away from his father’s latest round of bad news. Lisa’s on-again, off-again fling with Owen Wilson’s baseball playboy is a series of I’ve-had-enough lurches on her part (not his). It’s fun to watch, particularly with George, whom Rudd hilariously plays as a guy hellbent on attacking every crisis with inexhaustible good humor. (Another monumental highlight: the little laugh Rudd emits when Witherspoon announces that the only time she “really talks” is after she’s had a Guinness.) In a tour de force of unassuming verbal and physical comedy, Rudd has given us the big screen’s first answer to Arrested Development‘s Michael Bluth.
How Do You Know is too long, and wraps up with a series of irritating, phony sitcom contrivances. But to at least some worthwhile extent, Brooks — a grandmaster of middlebrow-intelligent, palatable, ever-so-slightly off-kilter comedy — has still got it. It may be cinematic group therapy, but it’s decent entertainment, too.