What went wrong with James L. Brooks’ latest, How Do You Know? The 70-year-old writer-director has been painstakingly crafting one brilliant confection after another ever since his film debut in 1983 with Larry McMurtry’s tragicomedy Terms of Endearment, starring the great Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jack Nicholson, which won five Oscars including best picture. Brooks went on to score audience and critical hits with 1987’s Broadcast News (seven Oscar nominations) and 1997’s As Good As It Gets (two more wins). But he did stumble with the one-time musical I’ll Do Anything (he took out all the songs), and his last costly dud, Spanglish, starring Adam Sandler as a chef. And now How Do You Know is just about unwatchable. (Check out early reviews below; the movie opens Friday.)
How does someone with such impeccable comic instincts lose his timing as well as his connection with the audience? It happens to everyone, eventually, especially in comedy, when directors and stars seem to have a limited window in the zone. This movie seems so divorced from any semblance of reality, so disconnected, so inert. The characters are concocted, they don’t ring true, and we don’t care about the things they are worrying about. What did the studio that has backed Brooks for decades, Sony, think of this script? What about the actors?
This is a career disaster for Reese Witherspoon, an Oscar-winning actress who has stumbled since Walk the Line and needs a flop like a hole in the head. The movie starts out promisingly with her fielding the blow of getting cut from her baseball team. OK, taking a feminine angle on an aging athlete might work. What will she do?
Well, she starts an affair with a cocky baseball player (Owen Wilson) and engages with a sad sack businessman (Paul Rudd) who is in deep trouble with his company, the government and his father (Jack Nicholson). This plot goes south very fast, until we are lost in the intricacies of Rudd’s relationship with his corrupt prick of a father (Nicholson’s worst performance since The Missouri Breaks) and his half-infatuation with Witherspoon, who seems to have no idea how she feels about any of her romantic interests. Nor do they. She shares some chemistry with Wilson, but none with Rudd. Is this a romantic triangle? Not really. It’s been a long time since I have so wanted to flee from having to spend time with any of the characters in a movie. You could feel the energy and good will leaving the theater like air out of a balloon.
By contrast, comedy writer-director Nancy Meyers is still working at the top of her game (and getting hefty budgets too, although not of this magnitude, a reported $120 million). She succeeds because she is writing about characters and milieus (albeit wealthy) that she knows and cares about. She’s able to make her comedies personal. That’s why we can engage with her characters and laugh with them.
Part of what went wrong here is the need for a filmmaker of Brooks’ stature to justify a huge budget and salary and deliver a broad commercial entertainment. Why can’t the studios read the tea leaves and recognize that their old economic model doesn’t work anymore? Paying talent their top quote ($50 million went to the stars on this one) is no longer justified unless it’s a major tentpole. Movies like The Fighter and Black Swan turn out better because they are made outside the system. Somehow, on this non-comedy everyone got lost along the way and wound up with a picture that will please no one.
“Romantic, yes, and, again, funny at times. But How Do You Know is more about the shifts – tectonic and otherwise – in relationships that shake the participants, who assumed the relationship was stable and unshakable…How Do You Know is an adult romance, one that blends wit and melancholy, sweetness and disappointment. It’s probably too studied in its approach – too formal visually, too deliberate in its pacing – to grab a mass audience. But there are pleasures – many of them, in fact – if you’re willing to let them come to you.”
THR’s Todd McCarthy:
“a low-impact romantic comedy-drama from James L. Brooks in which the central characters are strangely disconnected from one another as well as from the audience…While not as bad as his last outing, Spanglish, six years ago, it nonetheless shares the same sense of separation from real life,…Suppressing her natural can-do personality, Witherspoon plays a more neurotic and conflicted character than usual for her,…if not for [her] radiant, spirited presence, How Do You Know would be a difficult sit indeed. The three leading men are all appealing but go easy routes here: Rudd muggs, Wilson preens, and Nicholson, sounding quite raspy-voiced, pushes well-known buttons.”
Box Office Magazine’s Mark Keizer:
“Wilson is the best thing in the movie. He’s a cad, but in his own endearingly narcissistic way he’s really trying. If only Wilson’s smile, the one that makes women do things they know they shouldn’t, could connect with Witherspoon’s charm, which has been replaced with tentativeness, confusion and the exaggerated facial expressions of a sitcom comedienne…film gets too close in quality to the Katherine Heigl and Jennifer Aniston junk that Brooks is supposed to save us from.”
NYMag’s David Edelstein:
“Reese Witherspoon works her big jaw and pops her eyes…She’s going for Mary Tyler Moore but comes off like a blonde, overcaffeinated morning-talk-show hostess. Paul Rudd plays the adorable young corporate executive unjustly accused of fraud who tries to win Reese by being moony and clutchy and parading his insecurities—normally a good way to get slapped with a restraining order but here meant to seem irresistible. As the sweet but slow-witted pro-baseball horndog who turns possessive whenever Reese shows signs of independence, Owen Wilson takes something off his delivery, and his wobbly curve balls catch the side of the plate: Playing the dumb guy, he’s the only one who shows any intelligence…[Jack Nicholson] has never looked less like a movie star. Seeing Nicholson purged of charisma, you know there’s a rupture in the space-time continuum…The sad part is that How Do You Know is nowhere near as dumb as it looks. A couple of comic set pieces are inspired—or would be, if Brooks’s timing weren’t off.”
The Boston Phoenix’s Brett Michel:
“It’s strange that James L. Brooks should take so long to make his movies…It’s even more disappointing that he still mines the easy jokes, pandering sentimentality, and predictability of sit-coms. Where’s the Brooks of Broadcast News?…Six years in the making and this is As Good As It Gets?”