REVIEW: How Do You Know Has Moments of Genius -- But Too Many Cell Phones

Movieline Score:

A hanging statement rather than a question, the unpunctuated title of James L. Brooks's How Do You Know is an apt reflection of the film's amble toward a theory, in lieu of an answer. The subject, needless to say, is love: What's the secret? Is there an algorithm yet? How, when one meets a new person, is it possible to separate emotional temperatures -- where circumstance, experience, and need have led each of you to be in that exact moment -- and access what true baseline there might be between you? And if it is possible, is it useful? Abandoning analysis for instinct hardly seems like the thing: The rhetoric of instant connections -- clicking, chemistry, sparks -- feels random and unreliable; the more acquisitive approach -- involving checklists, potential, dealbreakers -- is bloodless and overdetermined. To be a vampire, and at least have a few clear guidelines about letting the right one in!

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is in transition: A longtime member of the national women's softball team, she has, at 31, aged into mascot territory; her teammates value her for morale-building more than mechanics on the field. George (Paul Rudd) is about to take the fall for a securities fraud case being built against the company run by his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson). He's also dating a chillingly efficient careerist (Shelley Conn) who doesn't have disruptions like a federal lawsuit built into their relationship specs. Matty (Owen Wilson) is a major-league ballplayer who thinks of women as entrants on a continuum called "Matty's Girlfriend," at best. At worst he moves them through his pad like parts on a factory line: Have a cold one on your way in; be sure to grab a commemorative sweatshirt on your way out.

Pragmatic Lisa takes up with vacuous Matty after she learns she's been cut from the team and must re-imagine her life. Lisa tailors her experience of Matty to her needs (sex and comfort) and tries to ignore the rest, especially his penchant for affirmative, post-sex recaps. Easy-going mainly in appearance, Matty is in fact the worst kind of self-conscious; he can't experience a moment without narrating it, and therefore in some way negating it as a shared thing. Charles lives in Matty's building, a circumstantial device that comes to feel quaint and almost comforting, given how heavily Brooks leans on the transitional, connective properties of the common cell phone.

Will cell phones kill the rom-com star? Or what's left of it to kill? Other genres have banned them outright; their promise of omniscience ruins opportunities for dramatic tension, or even pulling off simple plot points. But romantic comedies, to a growing extent, seek a certain reflection of the world, and the way we live now. Brooks's embrace of the cell phone -- every character has one; ringing cell phones instigate or interrupt almost every scene -- is not a concession but an active attempt to ground How Do You Know in the hubris, silliness and confusions of modern courting. It's a gambit that ultimately contributes to the film's lack of narrative discipline: There's no small relief in watching Brooks try on the romantic comedy for size, leaving aside its usual sexist numbskull trappings and toilet humor. And yet in striving to marry the modern with the classic, he misses the mark. I blame the cell phones. They corrupt the rhythm that otherwise must be built into a crackling script. Instead of narrative ingenuity and organic connections, we get characters appearing and reappearing at another character's whim. In a way it reflects one of the larger disappointments of modern life: Everything but true love (and the formula for a really great movie) is now just a few buttons away, and nobody really is where they are. Where's the romance -- and the challenge -- in that?

Rudd is sweetly persistent as the suitor who calls Lisa first to cancel the blind date she was unaware of, then to uncancel after he gets dumped. They share an amusing first encounter: Both use the dinner to buoy their spirits; both wind up exorcising their worst selves. It's a sharp, compact depiction of the mutual opportunism that can forerun both true love and a truly bad date. The subplot involving George's legal troubles burrows big pockets of dead space into the film -- the situation is never clear, and Nicholson's vamping in Master of the Universe mode is minor compensation. Lisa herself is something of a cipher: Flighty and insecure; frank and self-assured. She doesn't seem particularly interested in either man, which softens the film's central love triangle into more of a wobbly circle.

And yet there are a couple of scenes of pure, sentimental genius, as well as appealingly boggled turns by Rudd and Wilson. Ultimatums are leveled and a climactic, fortune-making party is thrown: There might not be a marriage, but in the spirit of wobbly circularity, Lisa eventually comes around.

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