How Do You Know | Re-view
We take a second look at James L. Brooks’s much-maligned love triangle.
PAT ON THE BACK "There, there, Owen. This movie isn't so bad."
How Do You Know is a mess, which is both a fault and its saving grace. In December, first-run reviewers (including our own) trashed James L. Brooks’s sprawling love triangle as a glossy failure, as if Brooks had taken his shot at being Nora Ephron and missed by a mile. But the places where How Do You Know departs from the romcom template are exactly those where it’s most alive, even if not all its rough-hewn pieces fit together in the end.
Start with Witherspoon’s character, an Olympic softball player who abruptly finds herself put out to pasture, separated from the career to which she’s given her life. She’s used to winning, to being governed by the locker-room mantras scrawled on the Post-its circling her bathroom mirror, and not well equipped to start at the bottom. Unsurprisingly, she’s a bit prickly at times, even downright rude, especially to the charming businessman (Paul Rudd) who won’t take no for an answer.
That Witherspoon is willing to be disliked onscreen shouldn’t be revolutionary, but in the context of today’s insufferably denatured screen romances, a heroine we’re not asked to love every step of the way is a scarce creature indeed. Brooks’s writing can be unconscionably sloppy, especially with regard to Rudd’s investigation for vague financial improprieties, and Jack Nicholson’s unhinged mugging as Rudd’s fat-cat father nearly blows a hole in the movie’s side.
But How Do You Know is the rare romantic comedy whose denouement isn’t a foregone conclusion, where the obstacles in the characters’ paths feel understandable. As dopey as Witherspoon’s boyfriend, a pro baseball pitcher played by Owen Wilson, is shown to be, the movie doesn’t need to run him down in order to shove Witherspoon toward Rudd. Sure, he’s hugely commitmentphobic and keeps a drawer full of plastic-wrapped toothbrushes for his apparently endless parade of overnight guests, but he’s not a snake, just a dim-bulb bohunk who knows how to treat a woman until the point he doesn’t.
How Do You Know is more genuine than the vast bulk of flicks the movie industry tries to sell as romance—the sort of thing critics ought to praise, not deride.