Sunday, July 17, 2011

Underfinished


How Do You Know?, written and directed by James L. Brooks, starring Reese Witherspoon (Lisa), Paul Rudd (George), Owen Wilson (Matty), Jack Nicholson (Charles) and Kathryn Hahn (Annie) (2010): James L. Brooks, uber-TV producer (The Simpsons) and writer/director of such film hits as Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, can pretty much do what he wants now. Apparently, with How Do You Know? he decided to make a movie from what really seems like a first draft.

This romantic comedy isn't bad the way most contemporary romantic comedies are bad. The characters are recognizably human and Matthew McConaughey is mercifully absent. But the script meanders along, losing one entire subplot for 20 minutes as if Brooks had forgotten how to cross-cut and generally taking forever to get to the point.

Witherspoon plays Lisa, a 31-year-old woman who's played softball for the US National team her entire life. But now she's been cut from the most recent squad and has no idea what to do with her life. Enter Matty, a loveable, narcissistic MLB pitcher played pitch-perfectly by Owen Wilson, and George, a depressed CEO being investigated for company crime actually committed by his weaselly father (Jack Nicholson).

Preston Sturges could probably have gotten 100 minutes of classic screwball comedy out of the collision of high finance and sports; Brooks instead goes for a slow burn. A really slow burn. So slow that Nicholson's appearance here is somewhat pointless -- he doesn't have much to do, and casting Jack Nicholson in a part that seems like a classic James Cromwell role really seems like overkill.

The love triangle lurches along slowly...very slowly. Wilson and Rudd supply a surprising number of laughs, and Witherspoon is still as cute as a button, whatever that means. There are nice touches throughout, from the collection of specially made sweatshirts and pants Matty keeps for his one-night-stands to wear home the next morning like some sort of parting gift, to Lisa's encyclopedic assortment of inspirational phrases Post-It-noted all over her mirror, to George's peculiarly formal mode of speaking. This isn't a great movie (though compared to most modern rom-coms it's a classic), but it's a perfectly cromulent time-filler. Lightly recommended.

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