Mixing high and low is a perfectly justifiable tactic for a romantic comedy, although most often the mood swings come across as opportunistic – a way to touch all the bases and make sure nobody, from the chortlers to the weepers, gets left out.
"How Do You Know" is best when it's morphing into seriousness. Too often the comic bits seem like sops to the audience.
Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an Olympic athlete and professional softball player who finds herself professionally and emotionally stranded when she is cut from the team. Her counterpart is George (Paul Rudd), a top executive in a business firm owned by his father Charles (Jack Nicholson). When George is served with a government indictment for corporate fraud, he finds himself essentially locked out of his company. Worse, he realizes the real malefactor is his father. What to do?
Brooks stages a meet-cute moment between Lisa and George on what, for both of them, is the worst day of their lives. Despite the fact that these two are diametric opposites – she remains feisty, while he's a wallower – something clicks anyway. No surprise.
Lisa, however, is already taken – sort of. Matty (Owen Wilson), a major league pitching star, has recently added her to his stable, but when she balks at being a face in the crowd, he settles on her as a soul mate. Although clearly a womanizer, Matty wants to be a good and faithful guy. He can't quite get the hang of it, though. His prolix apologies for not doing all the right things are more plaintive than whiny.
The problem is, Matty spends too much time congratulating himself. But he's far from a villain, which would have been the easy way out for Brooks. And George is far from a white knight. That would have been easy, too.
Still, as Rudd plays him, it's not entirely convincing that George would have the oomph to insinuate himself into Lisa's heart. Their pairing might have looked good on the page, but the way it's been done, it often seems more like a matter of convenience than a relationship made (however slow-cooked) in heaven.
Witherspoon, whose movie characters often exhibit a whim of iron even though they have a Barbie twinkle, is well cast. I believed her as a professional athlete. Her think-positive gumption has, deliberately, a hard shell. (She slathers her mirror in pep-talk Post-its.) She's not altogether likable, which deepens the romantic complications.
George is so puppishly likable that, in his scenes with Charles, he's like a weak-willed dauphin bowing to the regent. Nicholson doesn't have a very large part, and he doesn't do much more with it than swagger and snarl. He's playing a variation on "Jack," but at least he's entertaining.
The movie's theme is summed up in a brief scene between Lisa and a psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) who boils his therapeutic wisdom down to a single mantra: "You need to figure out what it is you want and learn how to ask for it."
Sounds like another candidate for the Post-it parade. Grade: B- (Rated R.)
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