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How Do You Know

Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson in "How Do You Know."

Walking and Talking

How Do You Know

“Figure out what you want and learn how to ask for it.” That’s the advice offered by a psychiatrist (Tony Shaloub) to a prospective patient. It takes her about 30 seconds to decide that she’s not the therapy type. But on her way out she asks the doctor in the most general way popular if he has any useful advice for life.

She thinks about that simple-sounding formula for a second and replies, “Those are both really hard things!”

Of course they are. They’re the dividing line that distinguishes characters in this new comedy from James L. Brooks. The sympathetic ones aren’t sure what they want and wouldn’t know how to ask for it; the ones who know what they want and say so gain their happiness at the expense of those around them.

To cut to the chase (it was screened for critics at absolutely the last minute), How Do You Know doesn’t rank with Brooks’ best films (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets), but it’s a step above his last effort, 2004’s Spanglish.

It’s also a movie that is quite poorly served by its marketing. If you’ve seen the trailers or commercials, you’ve seen it reduced to a standard romantic comedy of the kind that the studio would probably find it much easier to market during the holidays.

The theraputically averse young woman we met in the first paragraph is Lisa (Reese Witherspoon). A professional softball player, she’s the kind of self-starter whose bathroom mirror is plastered with inspirational phrases— “Courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear,” that kind of thing. These don’t help her cope when, at the age of 31, she is cut from the team by a new coach who grumbles that she’s .3 seconds slower getting to first base.

Suddenly unmoored, she is less cautious than usual in accepting the advances of Matty (Owen Wilson), a much more successful pro baseball star. Think of a younger version of Sam Malone from Cheers, moderately more conscientious but moderately dumber as well. He considers himself a thoughtful host and is proud of the fat that he has a closet filled with pink track suits in all sizes so that his pick-ups don’t have to do the walk of shame the morning after in last night’s dress. His thoughts aren’t deep, but they never go unexpressed. He’s the most consistently entertaining thing about the movie: Wilson is reputedly a pretty smart guy, but he plays dense oafs very well.

Entering Lisa’s life just a bit later is George (Paul Rudd), an executive in a corporation run by his father Charles (Jack Nicholson, who owes two Oscars to appearances in films directed by Brooks). An easy-going fellow who would never have been in this position if not for nepotism, he becomes the fall guy when the government discovers financial improprieties.

A consistent frustration in movies are characters who fail to make themselves clear to each other even though every person in the audience could clear up their troubles in a few sentences. This is a version of what Roger Ebert calls the “idiot plot” syndrome: If people were able to discuss their problems clearly and reasonably, the movie would be over in 15 minutes.

Brooks goes another route. He makes the characters’ inability to communicate the central theme of the films. Any two characters are seldom able to hear and listen at the same time. When they are, the one speaking doesn’t know what to say or how to say it.

It’s an interesting approach, but it wouldn’t make for a very enjoyable film without substantial does of comic schtick and a fairy tale ending (preceded by a Hallmark thought—“We’re all just one small adjustment from making our lives work”—that may be comforting but which no adult could taker seriously for more than 10 seconds.) Witherspoon and Rudd both get to play to their strengths, while Nicholson is always fun to watch even if he seems in his big scene to be channeling Lewis Black. Kathryn Hahn is a scene stealer as George’s secretary, driven to distraction by hormonal imbalances. Memorable it isn’t, but for holiday viewing it’s acceptable fare.

Watch the trailer for How Do You Know

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