How Do You Know Is the Best Rom-Com of the Year (Which Isn’t Saying That Much, But Still)

12/16/2010 4:00 PM |

How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks

Early reports of How Do You Know‘s greatness have been somewhat exaggerated. Which certainly says something about the critical goodwill James L. Brooks has accrued over the last forty years with his small but unique filmography (this is only his sixth feature) and as the producer of a ridiculous number of television landmarks (The Mary Tyler Show, Taxi, The Simpsons). The problem is that it also says something about the quality of romantic comedies out there, just how low the bar How Do You Know has cleared currently sits. If Brooks’s latest deserves to be hailed as the studio romcom of the year—and it probably does—it’s worth remembering that 2010 is the same year that gave us Valentine’s Day.

Like last winter’s It’s Complicated (directed by Brooks’s longtime friend Nancy Myers) How Do You Know is not as half good as I wish it was. But also like that film, Brook’s sixth feature is knee-deep in a generosity of spirit and an emotional authenticity that’s lacking in the crap studio pictures it superficially resembles. I mean that last point literally. If it weren’t for the opening credits, you’d never guess How Do You Know was shot by ace cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a go-to lenser for Steven Spielberg. The movie has that harsh, slightly orangish lighting that’s typical of movies like Valentine’s Day and He’s Just Not That Into You, and it does nothing for the ill-advised spray-on tans worn by several of the cast members. But once you settle in-once that is, the old-fashioned Brooks milieu kicks in, with its off-kilter dialogue and excellent sight gags-it’s possible to look past the movie’s cosmetic flaws.

Reese Witherspoon—in a variation on her usual type-A mode—is Lisa, a veteran softball player living in Arlington, Virginia, who is cut from the national women’s team as the film opens. At the same time, across the Potomac, George (Paul Rudd), a man with whom Lisa will soon go on a blind date, learns he is under federal investigation for some vague white-collar crime actually committed by his boss and father (Brooks stalwart Jack Nicholson). Nicholson’s character, in turn, lives in the same swank high-rise as Matty (Owen Wilson), a star pitcher for the Nationals. Matty has the usual issues with monogamy associated with being a famous athlete, but nevertheless he’s trying to make a go of it with his fuck buddy, whom he asks to move in with him. The fuck buddy is, of course, Lisa, and in less than 120 minutes she will have to decide between Wilson’s shallow alpha male and Rudd’s sensitive schlemiel.

Lisa’s decision is not going to surprise you. The boilerplate love triangle—self-plagiarised from Broadcast News (1987), still Brooks’s best movie—is perhaps the least interesting aspect of How Do You Know. Which is fine, because the movie isn’t about romance so much as how individuals find themselves in the company of others, how our identities emerge only when we connect. Though George’s relationship to his father is underdeveloped, in the realistically awkward scenes between George and Lisa and between Matty and Lisa, Brooks gives us an honest portrait of modern love with all its uncertainties. In one particularly insightful sequence, Lisa storms out of Matty’s apartment claiming to be through with him, goes out and gets drunk with George, and then, at the end of the night, goes back to Matty after one nice phone call. The course of true love has never run smooth, but it’s the rare film that depicts our false starts and detours as part of the process. The indecisions, equivocations, and outright mistakes Lisa makes before falling for George aren’t obstacles, but necessary steps she has to goes through first. How Do You Know may not be Brooks’s best work, but it’s hard not to see what is best in it.

Opens December 17