The cosmic question at the heart of James L. Brooks’ latest, appealingly quirky romantic comedy is “How Do You Know.”
Although the writer-director of such grown-up comedies as “Broadcast News,” “As Good As It Gets” and “Spanglish” fails to punctuate his latest properly (something to do with an old Hollywood superstition about an ill fate for movies with question marks in their titles), he does offer up some pointed and poignant inquiries into the nature of love, romantic fate and commitment.
“How Do You Know,” like most of Brooks’ so-called “dramadies,” features decent but flawed characters and a messy, loose-ends plotline that aptly reflects modern life with all its funny and heartbreaking imperfections.
The unspoken extension of the film’s title query is: how do you know when you’re really, truly in love?
And Brooks employs a well-scrubbed trio of highly likable, dazzlingly photogenic and apparently expensive stars (reported payroll: $50 million) to pursue that question through a thoughtful and complex if meandering narrative.
It all starts as we meet Lisa (Reese Witherspoon, dithering but sexy), an Olympic-caliber softball player who, at 27, is unceremoniously cut from the U.S. national team. Uncertain about her future, and equally uncertain about her romantic fling with playboy Washington Nationals pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson, a charming rascal), Lisa agrees to a quicky blind date with businessman George (Paul Rudd, a likable everyman).
George has just received word that he’s about to be indicted for fraud for some dubious doings at the corporation whose head job he’s just inherited from his wheeler-dealer father Charles (Jack Nicholson playing, well, Jack Nicholson).
Naturally, the date between these two distracted young people is a disaster. But, something about George’s vulnerability and decency sticks with Lisa. And something about Matty’s guileless honesty and womanizing past leaves her with deep doubts about their relationship. And so an offbeat love triangle develops – Lisa slightly indifferent to prospects of love; Matty willing to settle down with Lisa despite the bounties of his single life; George gently viewing Lisa as a lifeline to sanity.
Meanwhile, in a pithy subplot, George’s morally slippery father struggles to come to grips with his guilt, his horror at going to prison and his love for his clueless and innocent son.
Certainly, Brooks knows how to create memorable, offbeat characters and place them in stories that deliver plenty of smart laughs, along with an undercurrent of social timeliness and heart-tugging drama. As a writer, director and producer, Brooks has won three Oscars (for “Terms of Endearment”) and 18 Emmy Awards (for his work on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi” “The Tracey Ullman Show” and “The Simpsons”) essentially doing just that.
But his stories are hard to categorize because they don’t quite fit the standard romantic comedy mold. Their characters are too idiosyncratic, their plot turns too unpredictable, their conclusions too open-ended. In other words, as he does in “How do You Know,” Brooks turns formula upside down and shakes out something original and true.
How do you know when you’ve seen a James L. Brooks movie? You’re left thinking about it and marveling at its wondrous foibles long after you’ve left the theater.
- Dennis King
“How Do You Know”
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, Kathryn Hahn
(sexual content and some strong language)