Review: How Do You Know?

How Do You Know? (2010)
Dir: James L. Brooks

So this is what happens during lockdown, those of us with a bit of spare time on our hands and a wide taste in films scroll through our streaming services to see if they’ve got some hopefully feel-good movies to offer a bit of a lift on a rainy afternoon. That’s exactly how I came across this on Netflix, and on seeing the cast and director I thought I’d found a bit of a ‘hidden gem’, a James L. Brooks film that I hadn’t heard of before. 

Softball player Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t make the national team, discombobulated, she turns her efforts to her personal life, telling her friend that she might try dating someone who isn’t a professional athlete, yet then embarks on a tumultuous relationship with playboy baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson) who is not built for monogamy. Meanwhile, executive George (Paul Rudd) is being investigated by the feds, ousted from his father’s (Jack Nicholson) company, unceremoniously dumped, and forced to move to a cheaper apartment, he gets in contact with Lisa as he was once given her number for a blind date. Voila, a love triangle of people who don’t know what they’re doing with themselves let alone what they should be looking for in a partner. Cue two hours of muddled neuroticism.

The Netflix thumbnail of the poster got my attention straight away with the excellent key cast. It was even more appealing when I noted it’s from the director of ‘Terms of Endearment’, ‘As Good As It Gets’ and ‘Spanglish’, he’s also the producer of others such as ‘The Edge of Seventeen’, all films I enjoyed. Understandable then that I should assume this would be good and offer the same type of enjoyment, but alas, this film is a disappointing mess.

On release, this was so badly received by critics that the L.A. Times said it showed Brooks had lost his ‘comic mojo’ and Variety reported his ‘spark’ was gone. Audiences clearly agreed and on this flop, Brooks’ directing career essentially ended. While it’s true he has only 6 directing credits to his name and they’re spaced apart by a number of years, so you could argue he’s just taking a break before directing again, it’s been a decade and he hasn’t got any other writing or directing feature film credits since then, so I think that strongly indicates he’s done. What a shame to end on something that had such potential with the likeable cast, yet that falls so completely flat in every other way. 

Across the board, the characters are muddled in both the way they’re written and how their stories are developed. There are so many aspects that seemed like nothing more than a placeholder, the specifics of who they are or what they do end up being pointless and irrelevant. Reese Witherspoon is meant to be a professional athlete ‘in training’ yet we never really see her being athletic. Even though she doesn’t make the national team, surely she’d be playing for another team at some level? Isn’t that how professional sports at a national level work? I maybe naively assumed that the players get picked as the cream of the crop from teams around the country? Paul Rudd’s character is in very serious federal legal trouble, it sends him into a tailspin and worries him deeply, yet we never see him properly trying to get to the bottom of it. At the outset of the film he has a letter, one conversation with the company lawyer, then seeming accepts that he’s ‘being investigated’ although he doesn’t know why or really try to get definitive answers as his career abruptly ends. Personally, he’s sweet and sensitive, very much in love with his girlfriend, yet rebounds surprisingly quickly after being dumped.

Jack Nicholson is obviously there as a favour to the director. He’s fine, but he’s playing a caricatured version of his character in most other things, there’s no range required, the film asks him to do his trademark thing, dial it back a tiny bit perhaps, but that’s it. The character serves little purpose and the casting adds nothing unique, he’s a marquee name. 

Even the title leaves me a little confused. I thought it might be referring to the question of ‘how do you know which one you should be with?’ but that’s not really presented as much of a quandary. In the story presented you just know! She knows. He really knows. I knew from the first five minutes. Although there are brief moments in which Owen Wilson’s character tries to redeem himself, they’re played with such frenetic indecision that there’s no way he can be taken seriously as a suitable partner for Lisa to end up with at the end of the film. If he was presented as a viable, competitive choice, then that would make things a little more compelling, but he’s not. What’s even more confusing is that the title is apparently asking ‘how do you know you’re in love?’ Honestly, with the characters presented and the time they spend with each other, I don’t think that’s a legitimate question to be asking. The playboy who despite some effort struggles to be a good monogamous boyfriend is stupidly the first one to invoke the ‘L’ word! Even by the end of the film, to think that the best pairing could honestly be in love with each other when they’ve not even been in a genuine relationship together by that point is laughable. I know rom-coms are built on meet-cutes and whirlwinds but in this form, it feels so intangible that it’s impossible to get swept up in any semblance of romantic enthusiasm at all. 

It’s far too easy from the meet-cute to identify the couple who ‘should’ be together, they have a brief phone call and we know they’re the pairing we’re meant to root for and the only times the film works are when they’re together, credit, where it’s due, that bit of the film does work as needed. Sadly though, rather than that one key strength making you forget all the other weaknesses, it shows just how woefully weak the rest of the film is.

There’s one of James L. Brooks’ films that I’ve not yet seen, though I was recommended it years ago and I was even sent the DVD as a gift from my brother, ‘Broadcast News’. Somehow I popped it on my shelf but never got round to seeing it so I’m going to take this opportunity to finally plug that key gap in my James L. Brooks’ canon, a much welcome palate cleanser. If it’s as good as I’ve heard I’ll easily forget about this film, 90% of it is forgettable so I practically have already.

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