by Richard von Busack
In the outdated rom-com How Do You Know, two men contend for the affections of Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), an ex–Olympic softball player. Matty (Owen Wilson) is a genial, promiscuous stud, who is a $94 million–a-year pitcher for the Washington Nationals. (This is a bit like being a $600,000-a-year Safeway bagboy.) George (Paul Rudd) is too nice and too intimidated to pounce on Lisa. George is described by his far more hard-hitting businessman father (Jack Nicholson): “You are a good guy, as every prick with half a brain who takes advantage of you knows.”
Sedation sets in. Nicholson isn't lit well, and the problem of him being the devil who we know (and like) in a situation where it ought to have been played deeper and darker. How Do You Know is filmed by director James L. Brooks with little interest for the cityscapes of Washington, D.C. and It’s staffed by easily recognized sitcom types who stay typed throughout the film: the angry boss, the jolly doorman, the pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) with her canine loyalty. The title comes from the question of whether one knows one is in love. Brooks addresses this question with one-liners that have the profundity of Successories mottos. Lisa covers her bathroom mirror with affirmations on sticky notes. One starts to get the idea of the movie screen being covered with them, too, to the point where you can barely see the performers.
Brooks is trying to force these actors into the mold of some of his older stars, but Witherspoon is too seething to be Mary Tyler Moore, and Rudd (a really TV sized performer) doesn’t have the shrewdness of Albert Brooks, as especially seen in the moment where George gets drunk by himself, as Albert Brooks did in Broadcast News.
Using the same kind of rhythms, gags and teaching moments of ’70s network-TV comedy, director Brooks is trying to address recession misery. Lisa and George are without jobs and may not get hired again. Unfortunately, as in his last film, Spanglish, Brooks has no handle on the way the lower class lives today. Hahn’s boyfriend has the dese-dem-dose accent of a truck driver in a 1950s sitcom. And Hans Zimmer’s too-busy soundtrack functions like “sweetening” (canned laughter) as the jokes implode, one after another.