A version of this review appeared in The Age, January 27, 2011.
The writer-director James L. Brooks is one of the most gifted artists in Hollywood, but appreciating this requires some tolerance for bumper-sticker wisdom. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), the heroine of his latest romantic comedy How Do You Know, is a softball player who lives by inspirational maxims she recites to herself in times of trouble, or incorporates without warning into conversation. Axed from her team and unsure where she might be headed, she consults a therapist (Tony Shalhoub) who gives her yet another piece of potted advice: “Find out what you want, and learn how to ask for it.”
Many filmmakers would ridicule this brand of pop psychology, but Brooks takes a longer view: life is a matter of ongoing problem-solving, and no potential source of guidance should be dismissed out of hand. As it turns out, each character in How Do You Know has a particular technique of self-management, a design for living. Lisa's boyfriend Matty (Owen Wilson) is an easygoing, fun-loving guy, but his pursuit of pleasure is nothing if not systematic: as Lisa discovers the first night she stays over, he has dozens of toothbrushes stored away in a bathroom drawer, ready for each new conquest to use in the morning.
The other man in Lisa's life is George (Paul Rudd), whose existence, like hers, has recently fallen apart. Accused of corporate fraud, he loses his job at the company founded by his father (Jack Nicholson), while his busy girlfriend (Shelley Conn) suggests they “hit the pause button” on their relationship. In desperation, he too devises a plan to stay in control, keeping up his spirits by “denying a voice” to his panic.
Lisa's defining trait is her willingness to tackle situations head-on, and so she's flummoxed by George's habit of putting an ironic, self-conscious spin on every gesture. “I just touched your knee,” he announces, while she looks at him in disbelief: can this possibly be his idea of a seductive move? But if she can't quite work him out, she's constantly tickled by him – as she is by Matty, in a different way.
Brooks has had a long career in television, and even his fans sometimes view his films as sitcoms transferred to the big screen. But despite some difficulties getting from one scene to the next, How Do You Know is conceived throughout in visual, cinematic terms, with many plot moves and gags arising from the negotiation of personal space. Lisa agrees to move in with Matty, but has trouble squeezing her life into his apartment; in the meantime, George is literally cast adrift, former colleagues keeping a wary distance. Numerous crucial dialogue exchanges occur over the phone; a recurrent composition has one character gazing down on another from a balcony or a window, occupying the same frame while remaining physically out of reach.
As usual in Brooks' work, the approach is deliberately theatrical: the setting, Washington DC, is never more than a vague backdrop, and we hear few details about George's alleged crimes. Often framed in wide shot, the actors resemble figures on a stage, their entrances and exits carefully choreographed: Lisa keeps on storming off, then returning to make amends. Everything rests on the interplay between the central trio, and all three leads are phenomenal: Rudd runs the gamut from floppy euphoria to numb despair, Wilson turns a potentially obnoxious playboy into an affable delight, and Witherspoon's reactions to both are surprising and revelatory at every turn. Full of hammy bluster, Nicholson is the weak link in the ensemble – but he too has some terrific moments, particularly at the finale.
These days most romantic comedies are mundane, compromised affairs. Brooks is almost alone in continuing to take the rituals of the genre seriously; he's well aware of the lure of simplified, abstract fantasy, but tempers this with a modern, biting depiction of neurosis. The stretched-out scenes often resemble exercises in a drama workshop or a group therapy session: the characters are always second-guessing themselves, wishing they could erase a previous exchange and start anew. Endless, painful comedy springs from the struggle for self-realisation – but just as he refuses to dismiss even the corniest philosophies, Brooks finally manages to stage a convincing version of the dream of true love.