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With: Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Lenny Venito, Molly Price, Ron McLarty, Shelley Conn, Domenick Lombardozzi, John Tormey, Teyonah Parris, Tony Shalhoub, Dean Norris
Written by: James L. Brooks
Directed by: James L. Brooks
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language
Running Time: 116
Date: 12/13/2010

How Do You Know (2010)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Who Knows?

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It's really difficult to describe just how or why How Do You Know doesn't work. But it doesn't. It's as if it were strangely inhuman, beamed here from another dimension where everything seems just a bit... off. Nothing quite clicks in this movie. Nothing really sounds right, or feels right. It just... doesn't work.

This is the sixth feature film by writer/director James L. Brooks, who won a couple of Oscars with his first film, Terms of Endearment (1983). He made an even better second film, Broadcast News (1987), and received more Oscar nominations for that, and for As Good as It Gets (1997). He also made a film about test audiences for films, I'll Do Anything (1994), and ironically ended up cutting out several musical numbers to appease a test audience! His last film, Spanglish (2004), was a disappointment, but it could not have indicated the peculiar failure of this new one.

Jack Nicholson, who appeared in three of the five previous films, stars, but has very little to do, and not even his particular brand of Jack Nicholson screen magic can ignite any sparks here. He plays the father of George (Paul Rudd), a businessman who finds himself the target of a vicious lawsuit. At the same time, George meets Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a former player on the U.S.A. softball team, who was recently cut. Despite their troubles, they go on a clunky date that somehow leaves George smitten. Also at the same time, Lisa agrees to move in with her part-time boyfriend, another baseball player, Matty (Owen Wilson). Can Lisa decide which guy is right for her, and -- more importantly -- do we care?

At several points, I had the sensation of losing track of what the characters were trying to say, while they were in the middle of a speech. It's not that what they say doesn't make sense. It's just that it's kind of elliptical, and by the time a character gets to the end of a line, you've just lost the thread. Many of the jokes, rather than simply being unfunny, result in a response of "huh," such as when George's secretary (Kathryn Hahn) begins twitching during a meeting and suddenly lunges at George's dad. Huh?

Normally, you can pinpoint a bad film by the lack of effort; this one seems willing, but just seems completely divorced from reality, emotional, artistic, or otherwise. At times, something of Rudd's or Wilson's real personality manages to cut through the weirdness, but only for a fleeting moment. Nothing ever seems to be at stake, especially the plot thread wherein one of two major characters is supposed to go to jail. The movie simply ends, while conveniently ignoring this factor.

It's almost as if How Do You Know were dreamed up, but instead of embracing this dream logic and making it flow, it instead tries to cram it into the framework of an ordinary movie (and when I say ordinary, I mean ordinary, with a scrubbed, generic look). Next time, before he goes into production, I would suggest that Mr. Brooks try waking up first.

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