Judge Patrick Bromley would have been better off not knowing.
Our review of How Do You Know (Blu-Ray), published March 28th, 2011, is also available.
"We are all just one small adjustment away from making our lives work."—George Madison (Paul Rudd)
James L. Brooks latest film, the financially disastrous 2010 bomb How Do You Know, feels like the work of a director who's lost his way. There are signs of his past greatness (if you're of the mind that he was once great), but the finished film is more pale imitation than worthy entry into the director's catalogue.
Now you, too, can feel letdown by How Do You Know on DVD, courtesy of Sony.
Facts of the Case
Lisa, a softball player with hopes of making the Olympic team (despite the fact that I don't think the U.S. has women's softball anymore—just the first of many indications that something isn't right in the movie; at any rate, she's played by Reese Witherspoon of Sweet Home Alabama), is cut from the team and left without any prospects, save for a possible romance with a major league ballplayer named Matty (Owen Wilson, The Darjeeling Limited). George (Paul Rudd, Role Models), has just been informed that he's the target of a criminal investigation for some white collar crimes clearly perpetrated by his boss/father, Charles Madison (Jack Nicholson, Something's Gotta Give). What better time for these two to enter each other's lives and maybe hit it off?
I will admit that I'm something of a James L. Brooks apologist, so despite the lukewarm reviews and tepid box office, I was genuinely excited about the writer/director's latest film How Do You Know. He's never made a movie I didn't at least sort of like (though I'll Do Anything comes dangerously close), and he's the kind of director I feel inclined to defend. His movies are messy and ambitious, mixing comedy and drama in a way that feels more like real life than a lot of other filmmakers are able to achieve. He's always interested in creating real characters with flaws—who want to be better people but who are often limited by their own natures. People who in search of finding someone to accept them as much for who they are as who they would like to become.
Unfortunately, Brooks' most recent film, How Do You Know, tests the limits of even my devotion. The movie is a mess almost from its opening frames—and not the good kind of mess that James L. Brooks can usually create. The above quote from Paul Rudd's character is just about as explicit as Brooks has ever been about the major theme of all his films; surprising, then (or perhaps not), that How Do You Know might be the least successful at conveying that theme. Yes, these are characters whose lives have been thrown into disarray (for George, it's an indictment; for Lisa, it's that the thing she's spent her whole life doing has essentially been taken away). There's a movie here, but Brooks just keeps circling around it without ever really diving in; it's just a bunch of half-formed ideas and pieces that don't quite fit. And while Brooks has always excelled at combining comedy with believable human drama (I'm looking at you, Terms of Endearment), none of the drama feels real in How Do You Know (much of the comedy doesn't, either, but it works better). He piles complication after complication on his characters, but their problems never stop feeling like movie problems.
Reese Witherspoon, an actress whose charms continue to elude me (post-1999, anyway), feels spectacularly miscast as a no-nonsense jock. She tries, but most of her work just feels like a put-on; it's not until later in the film, when it becomes more and more of a traditional romantic comedy, that she relaxes and begins to feel at home in the movie. Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson come out unscathed: the former because he's able to make even the awkward scenes believable and the latter because he's playing a variation on every character he's ever played. The only reason he's able to phone it in and not be accused of being Jack Nicholson (who really does phone it in here, clearly doing a favor for his friend) is because Wilson's role feels tailor-made for him; not so with Nicholson, who isn't given a character to play and performs accordingly.
And, yet, Brooks is still capable of crafting a decent romantic comedy, and the longer How Do You Know goes on, the more it becomes a romantic comedy, the better it becomes. The last scenes are winning enough and Paul Rudd charming enough that it's actually possible to leave the film feeling like you've seen something sweet and entertaining (further proof that it's more important to stick the landing than just about any other part of a movie). Parts of it are, too, but not enough of the movie to make it work overall. How Do You Know feels like the work of someone trying to make a James L. Brooks movie but missing the mark.
Sony does a nice job with the How Do You Know DVD, presenting the film attractively in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, enhanced for anamorphic playback. Colors are reasonably vibrant and skintones are accurately displayed; if you consider the fact that everyone looked kind of orange when the film was originally released, you'll recognize that the disc is faithful to the filmmakers' intentions. The 5.1 surround audio track does fine by the dialogue, which really is the driving force behind this (and every other James L. Brooks) film.
If you want to know just what went wrong with How Do You Know, look no further than the director's commentary track in which Brooks is joined by (an almost entirely silent) Janusz Kaminiski, the film's cinematographer. Though the track is rather dry and spotty, there are multiple indications that Brooks never had a handle on the movie he was making; he makes continuous candid comments about not knowing where the story was going, never getting a handle on the tone (something he tried to fix in post, but that's a near-impossible task) and ditching elements of the film that would have made it lean more towards screwball comedy. Without really knowing what he wanted to accomplish when he started making the movie, it's easy to see how the whole thing got away from him (and expensively, too; the movie has a rumored production budget of $120 million, virtually none of which is on the screen). He tried to shape it into something commercial and appealing in the editing room, but by then it appears to have been too late.
A second commentary is also included, in which Brooks sits down with star Owen Wilson to discuss a few of his scenes. It's mostly a waste of time, since Wilson spends most of the duration just watching things play out. Also available are a handful of deleted scenes, a making-of featurette called "Extra Innings" and a two-minute blooper reel, made watchable thanks to the participation of Paul Rudd. There's very little that guy can't save—and that includes How Do You Know.
Perhaps the best way to view How Do You Know is as an excuse to see the stars of the 1998 romantic comedy Overnight Delivery reunite. Watch it on that level and you won't be disappointed.
Less interesting-mess than just mess-mess.
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