How Do You Know

With These Guys You Don't


18 December 2010| No Comments on How Do You Know     by Sean Chavel


Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd don’t do anything wrong with their talents or with their characters and yet when you put them together something comes out funky. How Do You Know should be a joyful and life-affirming romantic comedy because that is what it is aiming to be. Sometimes it is. Certain adorable and knowingly social klutzy moments occur that will make you smile with recognition. But this is also one of those movies where blabbering, neurotic characters apologize for what they just said after every two minutes, a disincentive that can be blamed on writer-director James L. Brooks.

But wait a minute, how can a word be said against that man? James L. Brooks (in addition to being executive producer of “The Simpsons”) is the man who also wrote and directed “Terms of Endearment” (1983), “Broadcast News” (1987), and “As Good as it Gets” (1997). Then there was the lesser but still moderately amusing “Spanglish” (2004), the Adam Sandler and Paz Vega rom-com that never entwined English and Spanish together in the same ratios of dialogue but was either one or the other. Here I am giving him a pat on the back and a petulant critique for his last film at the same time. I guess what I’m saying is that I am a fan of his work and yet reluctantly admit that I’m becoming a tad disappointed with his output.

Reese Witherspoon is a professional softball player who only gets one scene of her running the bases, and one other of her doing warm-up catches as practice. This isn’t a lot of exposition to immerse us into the world of pro softball. Witherspoon might as well be playing a wedding planner who never ties the knot, or a bridesmaid but never the bride. But oh well. She is Lisa, a 31-year old who is about to be cut from the Olympics Softball Team. She doesn’t know it, but the manager and staff make this clear in a very early scene. Lisa doesn’t know a lot about life outside softball but is still lovable because she is played by Reese Witherspoon, after all.

Lovable Lisa has never dated anyone but other ball players. The one she is dating now is Matty, played by Owen Wilson. We never see Matty on the field once in the entire movie. Nonetheless he could be the best, and most original, character in-play. Wilson makes him a gloriously insensitive character who insists on problem-solving for the girls he dates even though he hands out advice that is bafflingly simple-minded. He wants to send Lisa away from his penthouse in the morning in one of his assembly-line of pink jacket hoodies – a prepared assembly line in his closet is available because he never knows what size of girl he will be dating. As said, Matty is a great character but he belongs more in an exaggerated farce, not a film pitched at being a realistic comedy. Lisa doesn’t know much about life but you would think she would be smart enough to not move in with him. In a realistically pitched comedy that was realistic, she would know that and maybe more.

But there is a second guy who is not a ballplayer that Lisa owed a blind date. George (Rudd) is a businessman in crisis who has been accused of securities fraud. George wants to spill out everything that is harboring him. Don’t blow up, and just don’t say anything, is Lisa’s advice on how to get through the rest of the date. They will build a cute friendship, one where George falls in love with the unavailable Lisa who only turns to him when she needs to run occasionally from Matty. George is an eager puppy dog, but he never has any darned luck! Lisa likes to take the bus a lot, which is something less trivial to the plot than it sounds (the bus stop is a motif), and a key moment occurs when she runs off the bus to be with George (I am not ruining anything). It’s been long implied that George is in love with her, but even though Lisa is not willing to reciprocate she wants him to know she is there for him. Unstated platonic love.

Will George be able to mutate platonic love into real love? Will he be able to shake free from this terrible accusation made by federal authorities?

To this point, I haven’t mentioned a key fourth character played by Jack Nicholson, the financial tycoon, the boss, and the father to George. In his first scene, Nicholson is outraged. Nothing left to say other than outraged. I had a generic understanding of what the scene is about. But Nicholson’s ranting is incomprehensible, I could not understand to what degree of concern, or contempt, he was injecting into the dialogue. Nicholson is like this for a great deal of the film. I do not blame Nicholson. I blame Brooks for directing him like this and for feeding Nicholson the hullaballoo dialogue.

The residual telephone calls made between Rudd and Nicholson are excruciating, as are exchanges made by Rudd and his assistant played by Kathryn Hahn who wants to spill the beans on the rest of the plot but doesn’t. But let’s not get too bogged down. The movie isn’t a lump of coal. Rudd is doing a turn on one of his precious, buttoned-up nice guys who this time has been rich for so long that he has to try hard to fit in and be normal, as well as the earnest listener designed to be every girl’s best friend. Witherspoon, like Wilson says, can be pretty even when she’s mad. And when she’s spunky, she’s funny. These characters share a number of small but witty epiphanies that you can be grateful for. But as a whole, these characters never stick together believably.

121 minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “As Good as it Gets” (1997); “Election” (1999); “Spanglish” (2004); “I Could Never Be Your Woman” (2006).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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