In his first two feature films, Terms of Endearment (1983) and Broadcast News (1987), writer-director James L. Brooks created completely lived-in, wholly believable worlds populated by complex, thorny individuals. With his most recent pictures, though, Brooks seems incapable of striking a single honest note.
Much like 2004's Spanglish, How Do You Know (the missing question mark is only one of the movie's many half-baked details) follows a bunch of synthetic-seeming people who all live in fabulous houses and wear beautiful clothes and never have a hair out of place, even as their lives are supposed to be falling part. The one-liners that Brooks tossed off so effortlessly in the 1980s now land with a ho-hum thud. The likable actors can't generate any sort of warmth or chemistry. How Do You Know just ends up sitting there on the screen, mild and mechanical; it's hardly a calamity, but it's not much of anything else, either.
A pleasant-enough Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, the once-star player on the USA softball team, who at the film's start is cut from the roster. She drifts into a relationship with womanizing pro-baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson, giving new meaning to the term "miscast"), but not before also agreeing to a blind date with George (Paul Rudd), a broker who has just been indicted for securities fraud that his father (Jack Nicholson, predictably hammy) probably committed.
It speaks to the writer-director's general tone-deafness that he asks us to root for a white-collar criminal whose basic defense is that he didn't know better; even a puppy-dog-sweet actor like Rudd can't sell that one. Then again, it's hard to get into too much of a huff about the movie's pre-recession sensibilities, seeing as how none of these characters seems real. The (flimsy) drama revolves around whether Lisa will end up with Matty or George -- and whether George or his father will go to jail. But we don't really care about any of them.
Brooks has long had a fondness for sitcomish scenarios (he made his fortune as the creator of Rhoda and The Mary Tyler Moore Show), but this time his leaden touch suffocates the laughs. Note the scene where Lisa steps off a bus and tells George that she'll wait with him until the next bus turns up -- and the next bus turns the corner just a few seconds later. Amid all the other forced contrivances in How Do You Know, what should have been a cute sight gag ends up seeming flailing and desperate.