Under Review: ‘How Do You Know’


It’s easy to write about the movies you love. Whether it’s the great acting, plot, dialogue, cinematography or just the message — you know why you enjoy it so much and can freely explain why. On the flip side, it’s also easy to write about the movies you hate. The two leads have awful chemistry, it’s corny, it’s funny when it’s supposed to be serious, the camera work is horrible, etc. Sometimes, movies like this are even more fun for a writer to review.

But I’ve always had difficulty writing about a movie that I felt was just “meh.” So how to describe my feelings toward “How Do You Know”? I’ll try my best, but “meh” might be the most cohesive way to sum it up. Seriously.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a U.S. Olympic softball player who just got cut from her team. George (Paul Rudd) is the head of a business, and he just found out he’s been investigated by the feds for a financial crime he didn’t commit. The two go on a horrible first date, encouraged by one of Lisa’s former teammates, on the day that both their lives are falling apart. George is pretty much going crazy, talking incessantly, and Lisa tells him they should just eat their meal is silence. I’m not sure why, but George finds this incredibly charming, and Lisa’s silence as good company. He’s smitten.

Problem is, Lisa is sort of seeing narcissistic Washington Nationals player Matty (Owen Wilson), the type of guy who has about 20 new toothbrushes in his bathroom drawer and a stack of Nationals hoodies and sweatpants for the ladies who stay over at casa de Matty. Lisa at first finds this repulsive (hello! as she should!), but then decides it’s not right for her to judge him — plus, Matty is cute and funny in his “I’m so awesome” kind of way.

While Lisa and Matty go back and forth about their relationship and what it means (quite a few times), George is there when Lisa is not on good terms with Matty. The anti-Matty, George is attentive and enthralled by Lisa. While not-so-slowly falling for her, George is trying to sort out what’s going on with his company and the fact that he may be indicted for something he had nothing to do with. He is trying to deal with things as best as he possibly can, despite the fact that his assistant (Kathryn Hahn) and his father (Jack Nicholson) both know things about the situation that he doesn’t.

Lisa goes back and forth between a lot of things in this film: her feelings for Matty, her feelings for George, what she wants to do with her life now that her career has been taken away from her. With so much going on in her life, it makes sense that she’s feeling indecisive, especially because she seems to be what I’ll call a “life quotes” junkie — her bathroom mirror is littered with maxims about life you may find in some kind of inspirational self-help or quote book. Anyone who is trying to follow all of these different tidbits of life advice would get confused from time to time.

Even so, Lisa’s indecisiveness is annoying. To the outside person (us viewers), it seems absolutely silly that she’s with Matty. Sure, he’s a fun guy, but he actually admits to her that he still has anonymous sex while they are living together. Why in the world would you want to try to make something work with someone like that who you just feel is “fun” while you have a great guy (albeit, one who may be going to jail) who is head over heels for you? It seemed pretty unrealistic that Lisa, a character who is supposed to show this strong determination, can’t seem to recognize this.

Rudd is cute and lovable as George; many Rudd characters are cute and lovable, even when they aren’t trying to be. Seriously, he should start all his movies saying, “Hi, I’m Paul Rudd, and I’m cute. You’ll enjoy my role in this film just because I’m cute.” But Rudd’s awkward and jumpy but sweet George just doesn’t get to a certain level. Neither does Witherspoon’s Lisa, thought I take back what I said in my review of the movie’s clips — Witherspoon herself wasn’t the problem here, it’s the character.

Nicholson may be my all-time favorite actor, but his role in here is pretty unnecessary; he’s given very little to do as George’s father but get angry, be charming and laugh in that oh-so-Nicholson way. The only character that worked for me was Matty, and Wilson nailed it as the womanizer who is kind of trying to change his ways but isn’t quite there yet. He’s entertaining to watch, but not someone anyone — including fictional Lisa here — should want to date.

While watching the movie, nothing really clicked for me. It felt disjointed, awkward and bland. There were some good moments — a funny scene where a drunken George sings into a lamp; the poignant, well acted scene when Lisa finds out she got cut from the team — but overall, nothing about the plot, acting, dialogue, etc. stood out for me. The question the movie is supposed to address — “how do you know when you’re in love?” — never seems to get answered. Maybe that was writer/director James L. Brooks’ point?

At the end of the day, I think the buck stops with Brooks. He seems to have stopped short of developing these characters, their thought processes and problems; into making them something real and believable. I was reading an article in Entertainment Weekly a few days ago in which Witherspoon said working with Brooks was an actor’s dream because he does so much of the character work. Reese, were you in the same movie I just saw?

How do you know … if a movie just doesn’t make the cut? When you leave the theater, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “meh.”

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