In the hands of a lesser writer and director, How Do You Know might be just another throwaway romantic comedy, but under the guidance of veteran writer/director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) it becomes a deeper, more meaningful film that will also resonate with audiences feeling the economic pinch of these tough times. In it, Reese Witherspoon plays a star softball player torn between two suitors: a charming major-league baseball player (Owen Wilson) and a beleaguered, clueless businessman (Paul Rudd) who is being investigated for fraud by the federal government. Movies.com spoke exclusively with Brooks at his hotel to talk about the film, its inspiration and, well, how he knows.
Movies.com: You chose to write a story in which two of the main characters have reached a low point in their lives.
James L. Brooks: The low point.
Movies.com: Do you think that people reevaluate love the most, when they have lost everything else?
Brooks: I think the central notion of the picture is that the most romantic thing about it is hard-core accurate: If everything is happening to you and your life is undergoing awful, awful circumstances, if the right person walks through the door and you have the right connection…your spirit lifts and you can handle your life. That another human could be the game changer is very romantic and stone-cold accurate. So I like the fact that that's true.
Movies.com: You've been married and gone through many relationships in your life. Have you had your own pivotal "how do you know" moment?
Brooks: I think I've fallen in love in all sorts of ways; instantly a couple of times. Which I think is what happens to Paul [Rudd] in this movie. But what I finally came up with for "how do you know" -- and I take questions very seriously when people ask them--it's when you're more yourself than you ever imagined possible.
Movies.com: I think my generation has a harder time adapting to long-term relationships. It feels like we have a harder time making compromises more than your generation did.
Brooks: But I think if it feels like a compromise, you're really in trouble. There is a scene with Paul's character I took out where, after the physicist breaks up with him, he screams to the heavens, "I have terrible taste in women!" Which I think is a real problem that people have in life. He's been the low-maintenance guy in relationships, the one who's open to compromise: "Do you want this tonight, honey?"
Movies.com: Is it true that you spent a lot of time picking up the sport that Reese's character Lisa plays?
Brooks: Yeah. The idea of softball came to me one day when I passed a park near my house. I pass it all the time, and it suddenly hit me. There are like 20 seconds of softball in this movie, for which Reese worked out for three months for three hours a day, five days a week. But it changed her body and gave her an awareness of the women she was portraying, and I think what a female athlete runs into in a way allows you to hone in on what a contemporary woman is running into; the need to be quite strong, the fear of losing a part of you that distinguishes you as a woman.
Movies.com: A lot of people today might've done the opposite of what you've done, and put her in the Owen Wilson position. It's interesting that you chose for her to find her strength during a dark time.
Brooks: Female athletes still tend to have the purity of sport simply because they can't make that kind of money, with the exceptions of tennis and golf. I wanted to catch that too – what Owen gets being a gifted ballplayer and what she gets from being a gifted ballplayer.
Movies.com: You've worked with Jack Nicholson in the past, so how do you keep things fresh?
Brooks: The big thing that happens when you've been able to do this for a while is to still recognize that you're afraid of whether you'll be able to get it right. And that's a good thing. It's a hard thing to deal with. Jack remains vulnerable and searching, and I think that's what makes him Jack. I think it's great.
How Do You Know opens in theaters Dec. 17. Will you see it or skip it?