How do you know when the spark is gone? When your latest romantic comedy looks like TV, feels like greeting-card poetry and sounds like a self-help manual — the unfortunate combo that befalls writer-director James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know.” Ostensibly a love triangle involving Olympic softball athlete Reese Witherspoon, pro baseball lothario Owen Wilson and out-of-work underdog Paul Rudd (with a grinning Jack Nicholson thrown in for good measure), this wrong-headed dramedy peddles forced warm-fuzziness and insincere sentiment on the backs of an all-star cast — a strategy that will attract big auds but win few fans.
A throwback to a time when working with movie stars allowed writers to invent any career they pleased for the character, “How Do You Know” takes place with one foot in the world of sports, one foot in the world of business and its head in the clouds. Pic asks auds to believe Witherspoon’s Lisa Jorgenson is the glue that holds the U.S. Olympic softball team together, but however adorable she looks in uniform, the actress is hardly the hoss such a role requires.
While Wilson could pass for a cocky baseball star, his credibility disappears the instant his character, a narcissistic Washington Nationals player named Matty, opens his mouth. Sexually liberated and smugly convinced of his own sensitivity, Matty talks like someone who spends more time reading relationship books than servicing groupies — which, apparently, he does often enough that he stocks a drawer of guest toothbrushes and a closet full of “Team Matty” jumpsuits to make the walk of shame more comfortable. (Why, then, does he offer Lisa a lone sock drawer rather than clearing out these cupboards when she moves in?)
Rounding out the trio, Rudd plays George, a hapless businessman working at his father’s investment firm, where he’s being positioned as the fall guy for some shady dealings in the Middle East (Nicholson, in full cat-that-ate-the-canary mode, scores easy laughs as his cad dad). Not even the costume designer seems committed to this deception, with George’s wardrobe better suited to a college teaching assistant than a white-collar power broker.
In other words, “How Do You Know” takes place on Planet Hollywood, where Hans Zimmer filler plays like Muzak in the elevator of life. For the first hour or so, things are looking down for both George and Lisa, who appear to be coping with their respective failures (he’s the target of a federal investigation, she’s been cut from the team at age 31) in different ways, when in fact, both are proactively looking for relationships to rebound them from the bad news in their lives. Lisa has Matty, and George wants Lisa — and there you have it, a modern-day “Philadelphia Story” (or, more accurately, a Philadelphia-shot Washington story) in which the lady must decide between two completely different suitors.
In interviews, Brooks has indicated that he conceived the film around Witherspoon, but his sympathies seem to lie with Rudd’s character; it’s not until about an hour in, when George manages to wrest Lisa away from Matty, that anything remotely charming comes of the awkwardness onscreen.
Mainstream audiences may not be ready for the uncomfortable naturalism of the latest wave of DIY indies, but Brooks’ overscripted, overlong alternative feels disconnected from the world we inhabit. Consider George’s eight-months-pregnant assistant (Kathryn Hahn), who hyperventilates on cue and delivers her baby just in time for maximum poignancy, or the all-too-convenient detail that George’s dad lives in Matty’s building. Or the fact that we’re watching movie stars speak in the same perfectly articulated style we’ve come to expect from Brooks over the years: “Don’t do anything halfway unless you’re willing to be half-happy,” quips Lisa, a one-person pep squad whose speech, like her mirror at home, is cluttered with motivational aphorisms.
“How Do You Know” feels stuck in that same halfway-there space. Later, when George volunteers, “We’re all just one small adjustment away from making our lives work,” it’s hard not to suspect that a few massive adjustments might have resulted in a far happier result for all involved. Though it seems ill suited as a bigscreen date movie, with its brightly lit look and catalog-perfect interiors, “How Do You Know” will look right at home on TV, where, like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or a box of Mallomars, Brooks’ implausible confection should serve its purpose as a bad-day pick-me-up.