Who’s In It: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker, Shelley Conn
The Basics: Cut from the U.S. softball team at the ripe old age of 31, career athlete Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is in shock, adrift and purposeless. She begins casually dating pro pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson) to fill the void, but finds herself drawn to George (Paul Rudd), a businessman with his own life crisis to manage. This isn’t your average rom-com; it’s a dramedy from writer-director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets), which means instead of designer shoes, girl power pop tunes, and fantasy clichés, we get good old-fashioned multidimensional characters and talking. Lots of talking.
What’s The Deal: I’m only half-kidding about the wordiness of How Do You Know, which could admittedly be a major turn-off for some viewers. Brooks’ dialogue is the driving force of this urban romance, a character-focused story about how we communicate, how we deal with what life throws at us, and how we find the right person to love when other perfectly suitable, “normal” futures are right there in front of us. Brooks finds plenty to say about modern relationships through his well-drawn ensemble of characters (even Wilson’s ladies-man ballplayer is genuine and clear-eyed enough to recognize his own shallowness), and if you can forgive the occasionally unwieldy line of dialogue, the language of the film – how characters talk, listen, and understand each other or conversely, how they do not – deepens what’s happening on the screen. It’s unfortunate, then, that the sexual chemistry between Witherspoon’s methodically practical Lisa and Rudd’s overwhelmed George is tepid at best; after making his case for the two opposites to get together, Brooks resorts to classic rom-com formula to give them the kind of made-for-each-other resolution that audiences well-versed in the genre devour.
You’ve Got To Want It To Win It: At the center of the film’s romantic dilemma is Witherspoon’s pragmatic Lisa, the most balanced and reasonable screen heroine to be courted in the movies in a long time (and one of the only pro female athletes depicted in films, ever). She might not be totally convincing as an Olympic-level third basewoman, but the sport itself isn’t really the film’s priority; where Witherspoon’s portrayal resonates more is in how it depicts the aftereffects of a life lived for a single purpose. Kudos to Brooks for crafting Lisa as the kind of smart, level-headed, capable, red-blooded, confident female protagonist we never get to see in the movies, a well-rounded woman who can wear miniskirts and softball shirts with equal ease. (Bonus points for casting actual USA Softball stars as her supportive teammates.)
More On The Language Of How Do You Know: The wordplay alone is fascinating to digest, especially when dynamics shift fundamentally within the span of a scene. What characters feel and what they say they feel are often not the same, whether it’s a conscious effort to save face, soldier on, or protect others from the truth or because they themselves haven’t yet realized the truth. The most surprising moment of the film begins simply enough, as Lisa and George visit a friend and her newborn baby in the hospital. When they fail to capture an impromptu proposal on tape, the two re-stage the moment by recalling the most important heartfelt ramblings verbatim, emphasizing not only the resonance of those words but how paying attention to them can inspire a new kind of communication in itself.
What Could Have Been Trimmed Down: The plot line involving Rudd’s beleaguered character, an honest and straight-laced financial exec being set up to take the fall for his father’s fiscal misconduct. As Rudd’s overly aggressive, manipulating-but-loving dad, Jack Nicholson fails to get a handle on the material and instead showboats his way through scenes as if he’s lost the ability to play anything subtle anymore. Then again, this distracting subplot is virtually the only window into Rudd’s character, the impetus that sets the entire story in motion -- plus, Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers (Mark Linn-Baker) shows up for a few scenes as Nicholson’s legal advisor. I think we can all agree that that’s awesome in itself.