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Josh Reviews How Do You Know

Before the start of James L. Brooks’ new film, How Do You Know, there was a trailer for a new Adam Sandler film.  Apparently, Sandler’s character likes to wear a wedding band, even though he’s not married, in order to score chicks.  Then he meets a girl he really likes, but when she finds his wedding band, he’s too embarrassed to admit what he’s been doing, so he pretends he is actually married, to his assistant (played by Jennifer Aniston).  But then Aniston mentions her kids in front of Sandler’s new girlfriend, so NOW he has to pretend that he’s married AND that Aniston’s kids are actually HIS kids.

This is exactly why I can’t stand most of what passes for mainstream studio comedies these days.  I simply have no patience for films in which we’re supposed to be laughing at characters behaving in the ways that no actual human being possibly would — doing outrageous things and spinning increasingly outlandish webs of deception.

What a refreshing change of pace, then, to watch a film like How Do You Know, in which the characters all actually behave like real people might, and in which the situations seem like actual real-life situations.  Sure, there’s some exaggeration for comedic effect, and sure, there are some coincidences involved in the plot (such as two main characters in the story happening to live in the same building), but with only one small exception (which I’ll get to in a minute), the comedy in How Do You Know is drawn from actual, recognizable human behavior and emotions.  Thank heavens for James L. Brooks!

Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an athletic, driven young woman who nevertheless, at the age of 31, finds herself past her prime in her sport and cut from the USA women’s softball team.  She’s recently started dating Matty, played by Owen Wilson, an affable though somewhat dim professional baseball player.  George, played by Paul Rudd, has suddenly found himself under indictment for suspected unethical stock transactions.  He’s pretty sure he’s innocent, though the cost of his defense will most certainly bankrupt him and if he loses the case he could wind up in prison.  He’s pretty sure that his father, played by Jack Nicholson, who is also the head of the company where he works, knows a bit more about the situation than he’s telling.  Even after a set-up dinner that goes pretty poorly, Lisa and George  seem to continue to find themselves drawn into each other’s orbit, as they both struggle to find a way to get through this low-point in their lives when the hopes they had and the plans they’d laid out for themselves are coming crashing down around them.

There’s nothing earth-shattering about How Do You Know.  There’s nothing staggeringly unique about the story, or the style in which it is told.  The comedy isn’t that edgy or raunchy, and I can’t say that there are any real shocks or surprises in how the story-lines unfold.

Nevertheless, I really quite enjoyed this film.  It’s funny, it’s sweet, and its engaging.  Writer/director James L. Brooks has cast a group of winningly endearing actors in some well-written, adult roles.  Paul Rudd is inhabiting a familiar role for him as the silly, good-hearted every-man, but the man’s comedic timing is phenomenal (his attempt to act casual after dashing down a flight of steps after Lisa is hysterical) and it’s difficult not to root for him.  To be honest, I haven’t seen most of the films that Reese Witherspoon has been in, so I’m not that familiar with her work.  But she’s fantastic here as Lisa.  Her character is the most fleshed-out of the four leads.  James L. Brooks has written a really interesting character — I was pleasantly surprised at the way that the film seemed more Lisa’s story than that of George — and Ms. Witherspoon does a great job with the material.  (She’s also stunningly beautiful in the role!)  As with Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson is playing a familiar Owen Wilson character, but (also as with Paul Rudd) when his performance is this much fun then I can’t really complain.  I’m not quite sure how Mr. Wilson is able to keep Matty sort-of endearing even when he’s openly admitting to not being faithful to Lisa, but he pulls it off with aplomb.  He also gets some of the best moments of the film, particularly his “I broke a lamp” moment (which was spoiled by the trailers, but it’s such a funny moment I can understand why).  Then there’s Jack.  He doesn’t have that much to do in the film, but whenever he’s on-screen he’s sure fun to watch.  He dials down the usual Jack Nicholson mania into a low-level grouchiness, and the film mines a lot of humor out of watching this junkyard dog trying to act nice.  (His awkward visit to a hospital room late in the film is a real winner.)

There are a lot of great actors in the supporting roles as well.  Kathryn Hahn absolutely kills as George’s very faithful and very pregnant assistant, Annie.  The character is a wonderful creation, all on-the-surface heart and emotion, and Ms. Hahn is sweet and funny and pretty much terrific.  I was thrilled to see the great and criminally underused Mark Linn-Baker (Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers!)’s name in the credits, but was really bummed that he’s just in one scene at the very beginning of the film.  What a waste!  The also-great Tony Shaloub also has only one scene in the film, but it’s a pretty good one.  Then there’s Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc from The Wire!) who’s ALSO only in one scene in the film — but that scene is one of the funniest in the movie, so I can’t complain too much about that.

The one aspect of the film that I can complain about (and here’s a small spoiler, so readers beware) is the way the storyline of George’s indictment winds up with his basically having to choose whether to take the rap for his father and go to prison, OR to send his father to prison.  This was the one not-quite-real-life aspect of the story that I mentioned at the start of this review.  The whole thing feels a little simplistic and “movie-dramatic” to me, and that the complex legal shenanigans should all get boiled down to that one black-and-white choice didn’t really work.  It also casts a pall over George’s romantic goings-on at the end of the film that doesn’t work in the story’s favor.  The prospect of someone going to JAIL just weighed a little too heavily on me as I was watching the film’s climax play out.  I’m all for combining comedy with drama — Mr. Brooks is a MASTER at this — but in this one aspect of the film, the balance didn’t feel quite right.

James L. Brooks doesn’t make a lot of movies.  How Do You Know has apparently turned into quite a costly failure for it’s studio, so I’m not sure when he’ll be making another.  Ignore the unnecessarily harsh reviews and check this movie out (if it’s still playing anywhere near you).  It’s not the funniest film you’ll see this year, and it’s not the most dramatic.  But it’s a fun little story from one of the masters of the medium, and it’s certainly worth your time.

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