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.

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Oscar Moment: “How Do You Know”

5 11 2010

No one knows much about “How Do You Know” at the present moment.  But any movie that comes from director/writer/producer James L. Brooks has to be considered given the man’s 60% track record in scoring Best Picture nominations for his movies.

I’ve only seen his latest two movies, “As Good As It Gets” (which I totally adore) and “Spanglish” (which is still good although to a much lesser degree).  But the man has directed a Best Picture winner with “Terms of Endearment” and picked up a nice Best Director trophy for himself while he was at it.  Brooks is an incredibly influential figure in comedy, and as I pointed out in my column on “Love & Other Drugs,” that’s not an incredibly popular genre with the Academy.  To land three movies in the winner’s circle is a pretty huge accomplishment.

So what’s he up to now?  A comedy with comedic actors laced with drama.  His previous movies have starred, for the most part, dramatic actors – unless you dare to call Shirley MacLaine, William Hurt, and  Jack Nicholson comedians.  It will be interesting to see how critics and voters react to this shift in tactics.  “Spanglish” starred Adam Sandler, and they pretty much spat that right back out; will “How Do You Know” be any different?

To its advantage, it does have two Academy Award winners on the marquee: Reese Witherspoon as the headliner and Jack Nicholson in a supporting role.  I think wins are out of the question; Witherspoon because she won for a much more serious role, and Nicholson because he has enough with three.  The Golden Globes could nominate Witherspoon in a heartbeat in the musical/comedy category, and I could even see Jack getting an Oscar nomination because they love so darn much.

The other two leads are played by Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, both of whom have a fair amount of respect compared to other similar performers (cough, Jack Black/Will Ferrell).  I think it would be pretty amazing for Owen Wilson to score an Oscar nomination given the field (assuming he competes in leading actor) and his often poor selection of films leading up to this (“Drillbit Taylor,” anyone?).  Paul Rudd, on the other hand, has picked movies that have gotten his comedic talents some good notes from high up.  And according to Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, he could actually be a contender for this movie:

“The guy who delivers the goods is Paul Rudd. This will raise his profile to the A-list. This is a guaranteed Best Supporting Actor nomination.”

I’m a huge Paul Rudd fan, and I can probably quote every single line in “Role Models” that he utters.  So I’m all for him getting an Oscar nomination.  Best Supporting Actor has been particularly kind to comedic actors in the past decade with winner Alan Arkin for “Little Miss Sunshine” and nominations for Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” and Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways.”  My only worry for Rudd is that he could be pushed out by Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right,” which could be a stronger overall awards play.  But in my mind, the males of that movie were the weak link, and I don’t feel as much buzz around him as I do Bening or Moore.

As for the movie as a whole, I feel like Best Original Screenplay is a category that the movie could easily score in given the pretty slim field this year.  Best Director is not quite as likely given that Brooks has already won.  But Best Picture, now that’s an interesting proposition.

Smart comedy is something that many people speculated that the Academy would want to reward with the expanded Best Picture field.  They get their recognition at the Golden Globes, but very few find their way into the big dance (with a few notable exceptions over the past few years).  I think comedy has some unfinished business with the Academy, and “How Do You Know” could provide that perfect mixture of comedy and drama to score big with the voters.  Dave Karger of Entertainment Weekly stood up for it in October, writing:

“Here’s the one case where I’m apparently the most alone in my thinking, as no other participant has the film on his or her list. But I have faith in the upcoming Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy based on writer/director James L. Brooks’ selected track record (‘Broadcast News,’ ‘Terms of Endearment’) and the positive buzz I’ve been hearing about costar Paul Rudd’s performance. Here’s hoping it’s not another ‘Spanglish.'”

Karger ranked it as his fifth selection, which shows a lot of confidence.  It’s hard to judge anything until the movie gets seen by a lot of critics, so right now all I have is speculation based on little substantive evidence.  But with James L. Brooks, we can make those guesses pretty educated.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Rudd), Best Original Screenplay

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor (Nicholson)





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 9, 2010)

9 04 2010

Those of you who read this blog in December and January know that I’m kind of obsessed with the work of director Jason Reitman.  While doing some research on him, I came across some of his cinematic influences.  One of the filmmakers he lists is Alexander Payne.  I had seen one of Payne’s movies, “Election,” but I decided that I needed to further explore.  “Sideways” was good, but it’s not something people my age are supposed to get.  The movie that really struck me was “About Schmidt,” so much in fact that I even decided to call it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  (And just for the sake of the occasional refresher, the acronym stands for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie.)

The titular character, Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), is at an end-of-life crisis.  After retiring, he enters the twilight years with cynicism and boredom.  His wife is aging quickly, and Schmidt often wonders where the woman that he married has gone.  His daughter (Hope Davis) is marrying a dimwitted guy who sports a mullet (Dermot Mulroney).  Despite his best attempts, he can’t get her to reconsider.  In all aspects of life, Schmidt feels useless.

But soon Schmidt is left alone, and he decides to recapture control of his life by driving a Winnebago to see sights from his childhood en route to the wedding.  Even after logging all these miles, he still can’t escape the feeling that his life is inconsequential.

“About Schmidt” is at its best whenever it shows Schmidt trying to make a difference in someone’s life.  After seeing an ad on TV, he decides to sponsor a child in Tanzania named Ndugu.  He can’t pronounce the name, but Schmidt earnestly wants to help this child.  He goes further beyond providing monetary support and makes contact with Ndugu, writing him many revealing letters about his own life.  It’s somewhat pathetic to think that Schmidt can only tell these things to Ndugu, but it further reveals how lost this man is.

It’s easy to see how movies like this have influenced Jason Reitman (for example, the wedding scenes in this and “Up in the Air”) and other directors, and “About Schmidt” is a movie that deserves to be imitated.  Jack Nicholson gives no doubt as to why he is one of the best – if not the best – actors of our time.  The supporting performances are great as well, particularly Kathy Bates as Schmidt’s overbearing future in-law.  The Golden Globes classify this as a drama, and in large part, that’s what it is.  But “About Schmidt” has enough laughs to satisfy any moviewatching mood you could possibly be in.