The James L. Brooks that you think you know is not the James L. Brooks that really exists. There is always a buzz about a Brooks script and movie that makes it appear that what you are going to see is a smarter, better written movie that comes to the multiplex. Untrue. The James L. Brooks who is writing and directing today does not deserve this lofty reputation since he's been consistently delivering clunkers to theaters since the 1990s. Let's go through his films one by one, shall we?
As good as it gets. There’s a lot wrong and missing with How Do You Know, but the primary
blame rests firmly and resolutely on the shoulders of writer/director James L. Brooks.
Brooks' resume is actually a short one, writing and directing only six films in his career after being an acclaimed writer for various television fare. His first two were terrific, Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987), but he's been living off the achievements of that pair while delivering overly-scripted, muddled, confusingly bad let-downs ever since. Films number three to six? I'll Do Anything was a forgettable comedy from 1994. Don't remember it? Exactly. As Good as It Gets (1997) was trite, extremely overrated, and has not held up well with age. Spanglish (2004) was another exasperating picture and now Brooks delivers How Do You Know. Unfortunately, it's not a step back into the winner's circle.
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, a 31-year-old member of the USA softball team who is battling to hold onto her spot as the team's leader and sparkplug. Eternally optimistic and perky (the usual sort of role for Witherspoon, this is a pattern for all the actors), her worldview starts to crumble when she's left off the team for someone younger and faster on the base paths. Lisa meets Matty (Owen Wilson), a professional baseball player and womanizing cad with whom she would never get involved if circumstances were normal. But these aren't normal times for Lisa so she's soon making disastrous choices when it comes to Matty.
Of course, there is more than one romantic angle in How Do You Know and a second major storyline is developed to propel Lisa into the life of George (Paul Rudd). He's going through a worse stretch of days than Lisa that involves being unemployed and having to sell everything of value to pay for lawyer retainers because the feds are indicting him for felony fraud. Seems dear old dad (Jack Nicholson) was extremely greedy with the stock market and has left son out to dry. It's under these not-so-great times, for either Lisa or George, that they meet and begin their friendship which could turn into more if they can both become the people they used to be.
There's a lot wrong and missing with How Do You Know, but the primary blame rests firmly and resolutely on the shoulders of writer/director James L. Brooks. The script is not so much terrible, but "too" written. It does not have the natural ease of conversation when the actors speak. Instead, the dialogue feels too contrived, too forced and the amount of effort that has gone into working and re-working the script makes the entire tone of the movie feel askew. You can almost hear the clickety-clack of a keyboard as the actors talk, that's how lame this script is by Brooks.
Brooks always wrangles a good cast to take part in these various cinematic failures and How Do You Know is populated with professional, likable actors such as Rudd, Witherspoon, Wilson and Nicholson. Their performances, much like the script, feel off in some hard to pin down way as the film unfolds. All of them show absolutely no nuance or restraint as they tap into all the well-worn traits they are known for. Let's blame Brooks for that too since he is the director. If the verbal magician Paul Rudd can't turn someone's words into at least a few laughs then there is a problem and he only works his spell a time or two. The rest of the cast? Nothing.
The worst offender? Jack Nicholson. If the 73-year-old Nicholson is going to keep phoning it in like he does in How Do You Know, he should probably think about retiring. It will be hard for him to turn down easy money that he gets to pay for his courtside Los Angeles Lakers tickets in films such as these, but I haven't seen such a walk-through performance by an actor all year. Ridiculous amounts of overacting shouldn't come from a man with multiple Oscars and numerous awards sitting on the shelves at home. I'm not sure Nicholson even needed to be conscious to play this part since he falls so utterly into "Jack" mode that is all blustery shtick rather than actual acting.
How Do You Know is a woeful piece of filmmaking from a director who has a better reputation than is warranted. So what if he was involved in some great TV shows in the 1970s/1980s and made a couple of good films in the 1980s. That was 23 years ago. James L. Brooks has delivered another overwrought script that has no flow or charm in it at all. How Do You Know hits on all the wrong notes. It's more awkward than romantic, it's lifeless, never humorous and worst of all it is dull, dull, dull. Face it, the James L. Brooks who made a couple of great films in the 1980s is gone. Long gone.
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