REVIEW: How Do You Know

23 12 2010

I sure wish “How Do You Know” knew what it wanted from the beginning.  James L. Brooks’ latest comedy is a study of three people uncertain of what they want for their futures.  Nervous, frantic, and anxious, they each search for the answer to the questions they pose about their lives.  But no one ever seems to find an answer, just a new question to occupy their thoughts.  This makes for dynamic and neurotic characters, all portrayed with gusto by the sensational cast, but the movie feels like it’s running  in circles around the same issues.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is looking for a new life direction after her softball career is abruptly ended.  George (Paul Rudd) is unsure of the next step in his life after being served an unexpected indictment.  Serving more as comic relief, Matty (Owen Wilson) is an organized womanizer trying to figure out whether he loves Lisa enough to change his ways.  “How Do You Know” is really the story of Lisa and George, though, as they actively seek conviction in their life choices and wind up finding each other.

The two are incredibly vulnerable and emotional train-wrecks, never certain of where they are headed even when they begin a sentence.  It starts out with George, caught between a rock and a hard place with pressure from his dad (Jack Nicholson) mounting as his head is about to be served on a platter to the prosecutors.  But when the two meet on a blind date, all the neuroses transfer over to Lisa, who becomes increasingly unsure of her decision to move in with Matty and unable to remain committed to anything.  While George’s options become more black and white, he is still just as lost as Lisa, and the two manage to find comfort in their mutual wandering.

There can be plenty of humor in other people’s pain, and Brooks gives us little glimpses of it although it comes more at the back half of the movie when the characters discover the painkiller known as alcohol.  There are some very entertaining discussions and some interesting self-examinations, but they seldom lead anywhere or advance the plot.  Dancing around the same questions which have puzzled thirty-somethings for years isn’t exactly entertainment; there has to be some spark to make it work if you don’t plan on providing a fresh answer (which Brooks doesn’t exactly do).

Enter Paul Rudd.  His zany comedic charm lights up the movie like a Christmas tree, providing it a much needed jolt that makes the movie come to life.  While Witherspoon plays the confused damsel in distress and Wilson plays his typecast airheaded horndog, Rudd adds a dramatic twist to his normal sardonic and overwrought neurotic characters and makes George a fascinating specimen.  We always know what’s going to happen to him, but how Rudd makes it unfold with his wild mannerisms and biting wit keeps us drawn in.  If I was asked how I knew Paul Rudd was headed for great things in the future, I’d point to “How Do You Know” – but only for a second before I pointed to “Role Models.”  B

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