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How Do You Know

by on December 16, 2010
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What a charming mess of a movie.

James L. Brooks doesn’t make a lot of films, directing only six over the past three decades. But the writer/director’s efforts are usually good (“As Good As It Gets”) and sometimes great (“Broadcast News”).

His latest, “How Do You Know,” is a discombobulated casserole of attractive performers giving wry, clever performances. It’s a classic love triangle, with a federal indictment and paternal conflict thrown in.

Since the cast is so likable, and Brooks is famous for his touch with actors, I’m left to conclude that the film’s fatal flaws lie with the script. It feels less like a coherent narrative than a series of vignettes in which the characters say improbably witty things and act in ways that aren’t tethered to rational behavior. We sense them performing for the camera.

Reese Witherspoon is an actress whom an audience instinctively wants to hug. No matter the role, she brings a plucky, sweet indomitability to her characters — something to do with those big, guileless blue eyes paired with that stubborn chin of hers. “Spunk” is a word created with Witherspoon in mind.

She plays Lisa Jorgensen, a veteran of the U.S. women’s softball team. But at age 31, she’s lost a step and soon finds herself without a job. Strapped of options, she agrees to move in with her new boyfriend, Matty, a professional baseball pitcher.

Owen Wilson plays Matty as a little boy who never grew up, though he’s been infused with a good deal of juvenile libido and New Age-y malapropisms. Matty’s not a bad guy, and he wants to treat Lisa right, but he’s too used to having everything handed to him to be truly capable of thinking of another.

Lisa is horrified when, after spending her first night at Matty’s swank Manhattan apartment, he offers a pink sweatsuit to wear from a pile of them he keeps for just such occasions, in a variety of sizes. That’s typical for Matty, who puts an agreeable spin on piggish behavior.

The X factor in her life is George, a corporate exec who is the target of a government investigation into wire fraud. A straight arrow, George has no idea what it’s about, but the company gives him the boot and treats him as a persona non grata — even though his father (Jack Nicholson) is the founder.

George and Lisa hook up on a blind date, just a night for each of them to get away from their troubles for awhile, and find a spark there. Even though he’s morose and self-deprecating over his situation, George still impresses her as the sort of decent guy Matty only thinks he is.

George is played by Paul Rudd, a supporting actor who’s finally getting his big shot in leading roles. Rudd smiles and kvetches, and somehow we like him for all his obvious weaknesses. (By the way, Witherspoon and Rudd were actually a cinematic couple before, back in 1998’s forgettable “Overnight Delivery.”)

I liked all of the cast, even though I didn’t really buy them as real people. Nicholson adds some droll moments as George’s dad, who cares deeply about his son but is also working the angles to protect his own hide. And Kathryn Hahn is a delight as Annie, George’s worrywart secretary and the one person from work who doesn’t ostracize him when times get tough.

“How Do You Know” contains never a dull moment, but plenty of quizzical ones where we don’t really understand what’s going on or why the people we’re watching do what they do.

3.5 Yaps