Monday, December 27, 2010

How Do You Know: Hard to be sure

How Do You Know (2010) • View trailer for How Do You Know
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for profanity and mild sensuality
By Derrick Bang

Sweetest movie proposal scene ever.

And no, I’m not revealing anything that has to do with our stars. One of the hallmarks of a sharp script – and well-directed film – is the degree to which attention is paid to the smallest characters. Writer/director James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) delivers precisely those goods in How Do You Know, and we can’t help being charmed by everybody from an observant doorman (John Tormey) to a savvy psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub, making the most of a single scene).
When Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) invites George (Paul Rudd, right) inside for a
brief visit, she's surprised to be dressed down by Matty (Owen Wilson), who
objects because she's living in "his" place ... rather than sharing digs in "their"
place. (Ergo, she should have "asked permission" before having any guests.)
Not for the first time, Lisa subsequently sees the need to re-evaluate her
relationship with Matty.

Indeed, Shalhoub’s sage advice to our heroine should be stitched onto a sampler and mounted on the wall adjacent to everybody’s kitchen.

Perhaps this also explains why How Do You Know seems to be on the losing end of the 2010 holiday films tsunami. For all its witty delights and clever repartee – Brooks’ characters always unerringly say the best possible things, at the best possible moments – the result sometimes feels a bit too slick, a bit too formulaic, a bit too clever for its own good. Much as we come to enjoy our time spent with Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), George (Paul Rudd) and Matty (Owen Wilson), the set-up is contrived and the execution rather retro: It’s not hard to imagine these lines being delivered by the likes of, say, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, back in the day.

Mind you, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it does require a particular mindset: a willingness to go with the flow in order to enjoy what frequently feels more like a particularly nimble stage play.

Lisa has played ball her whole life; indeed, her entire soul is wrapped up in the game. But advancing age – a heart-stopping 31 – has robbed her of those necessary precious seconds of additional speed and swift reflexes. As this saga begins, she’s hit with the worst possible calamity: She’s cut from the USA Women’s softball team.

Cast adrift. Directionless. Without a clue what to do next.

Oh, sure; Lisa knew, intellectually, that this day would come. She simply didn’t expect it to come now. Her plight – and Witherspoon’s nuanced depiction of Lisa’s reaction – will feel familiar to anybody downsized during our ongoing economic malaise. It’s like being in a relationship that one knows won’t go the distance: We always want to leave on our terms, rather than wake up one morning to discover we’ve been left.

So, what to do, when one’s appointment calendar suddenly has no more entries? Engage in a meaningless and purely physical relationship, of course, which is precisely what Lisa does. Nobody could be more superficial than Matty, a handsome, funny, wealthy and famous professional ballplayer. And if Matty also happens to be hilariously shallow and self-absorbed, well, so much the better.

Indeed, his “thoughtfulness” extends to a drawer filled with unused toothbrushes, and a closet laden with cozy, morning-after track suits in a variety of sizes. Funny thing: Matty can’t understand why Lisa suddenly feels like a notch on the bedpost.

Even so, she can’t quite bring herself to stalk off for real.

But she remains conflicted, and so impulsively accepts a second stab at a blind date with George. He’s almost immediately smitten, but she is sorta-kinda attached elsewhere. And so he does the honorable thing, and backs off.

More or less.

Actually, George has his own problems. As the public face of the large and successful business empire built by his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), George confronts an unpleasant shock one day when, without warning, he’s handed a subpoena with the ultimate ominous opening: “United States Government vs. George Madison.” Trouble is, he hasn’t the faintest idea what he might have done wrong; George is, we quickly learn, as honest and forthright as the day is long.

But that’s precisely the problem, his disgusted father grouses, believing that his all-too-trusting son has put his faith in the wrong parties during some deal that has gone terribly wrong, leaving poor George holding a hot potato only now beginning to burn his fingers.

We get a sense that Charles isn’t entirely proud of George, who may have drifted through a few “test careers” before being dragged into the family firm. Nicholson’s take on this corporate shark is pitch-perfect, although shaded more for amusement than actual malevolence. Charles may not be a Gordon Gekko, but we’ve little doubt that his warning – if faced with the need to choose between his son or his company, he’ll pick the latter – has the sting of truth.

That cold-blooded statement arouses the hot-blooded fury of Annie (Kathryn Hahn, simply delightful), George’s steadfast and very pregnant assistant. When George is, of necessity, cast adrift while the company prepares its defense against whatever surprises the U.S. government investigators are about to reveal, Annie is sent into her own personal hell. As the days pass, she learns more and more that could help George, but she’s enjoined by the company lawyers from saying anything to him ... and she needs to keep her job, since she’s about to become a single mother. The inner conflict kills her, and Hahn unerringly milks this torture for every possible laugh.

More than anything else, though, longtime movie buffs will be impressed by the control Brooks has over Rudd and Wilson. I’ve never liked either actor; Rudd has made a career of bland, stiff, doormat-type characters who simply aren’t terribly interesting. At the opposite extreme, Wilson has been a too-glib over-achiever whose twitches and smug self-absorption invariably wear thin 10 minutes into any movie in which he stars.

In Brooks’ hands, though, both actors blossom. Almost magically. Brooks builds subtle shading into Rudd’s normally wooden delivery, turning him into a sensitive guy whose greatest quality is the ability to observe and listen.

At the same time, Brooks gets Wilson to throttle back, while also going with the actor’s strength: Matty is a self-absorbed jerk who hasn’t the faintest idea how to process the possibility that he might be developing actual feelings for Lisa. Matty pounces on each aspect of his awakening sensitivity like a small kid delighted by the discovery of a lost tooth, who can’t wait to put it under a pillow.

And, naturally, by proudly announcing these “sudden epiphanies,” Matty completely ruins the moment. Repeatedly. And it grows funnier each time.

No surprise, then, that Brooks has directed numerous actors and actresses to Academy Award-nominated performances; indeed, Nicholson has won twice under Brooks’ guidance, for Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets. The results here are equally entertaining. Nicholson manages to make the largely unsympathetic Charles unexpectedly vulnerable at times ... and if not likable, at least worth our emotional investment.

Ironically, Brooks may have done his job too well with Rudd, Wilson and Nicholson. Although Witherspoon’s Lisa is ostensibly the primary protagonist of this piece, she’s often overshadowed by her co-stars, probably because she’s the only “straight” character amid a gaggle of scene-stealing light comedy players.

We certainly care about Lisa, and Witherspoon repeatedly delivers the emotional goods: never better than when she pleads for her former teammates not to “treat her differently” the next time they meet. Despite this, Lisa too often feels like a hapless moth drawn by candles held by George and Matty: less her own woman, and more somebody who simply reacts to the behavior of two completely dissimilar guys. Not terribly liberated, not terribly enlightened

Maybe that explains why How Do You Know ultimately feels a bit flat and unfinished. Despite the often delightful dialogue and cute touches, this film is less than the sum of its engaging parts: charming while we’re planted in the theater seat, but rather unmemorable 24 hours later.

Still, some of those parts truly are choice.

Particularly the aforementioned proposal scene, which belongs in cinema’s “greatest moments” book.

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