How Do You Know (review)

If You Have to Ask…

How do you know what? If you’re an idiot? If you have to ask…

I’d really like to give writer-director James L. Brooks the benefit of the doubt here, because I think — as I usually don’t about asinine romantic comedies — that he means well. I think he thinks he’s doing modern womanhood a solid with his creation of Lisa Jorgenson, professional athlete, who finds herself at a romantic crossroads just as her career is falling apart. Anyone in such a situation can be indecisive and unsure of herself, but Lisa clearly has made no plans for life after sports, not even to give it the most cursory of thoughts, even though she admits she knows the professional athlete’s calling is a short-lived one, and so she’s utterly unprepared when she’s cut from the Team USA softball roster. What will she do? How will she identity who she is if she can’t wear a mitt and swing a bat?
Perhaps if any of the film spent time with Lisa on a diamond, if we got to see her passion for the game, we might understand how blinded she was to the inevitable eventualities. But we don’t… except for the short opening gambit of the movie, in which we see little Lisa, maybe four or five years old, whack the shit out of a t-ball, only to draw the ire of a bully boy who shoves her down to the ground in his outrage at being shown up (he was unable to hit the ball). She just stares at him, dumbdounded. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t yell at him, she doesn’t push back. She just takes the abuse quietly, like a good little girl.

This may be Lisa’s defining characteristic: she lets herself get pushed around by men, and doesn’t seem to mind it — doesn’t even seem to notice it. It sorta explains how the career stuff takes a backseat in the gall department to how timid she is in acquiescing to a “relationship” — if you can call it that — with pro ballplayer Matty (Owen Wilson: Marmaduke, Fantastic Mr. Fox). He treats like her she’s barely human, down to telling her how to feel — she even apologizes to him when she experiences any emotions that contrast with his! — and yet we’re meant to see that it’s a tough choice for her to leave him and throw her lot in with George (Paul Rudd: Dinner for Schmucks, I Love You, Man), a doormat of a milquetoast who’s under federal indictment for securities fraud. (The idea that she could do with some alone time is never even broached, because naturally a woman is nothing without a man at her side all the time. Damn, I might almost have liked this flick is Lisa told both her suitors to take a running leap and walked off by herself into the sunset at the end. Cuz dang if George doesn’t have to explain to her how she feels, too.)

Reese Witherspoon (Monsters vs. Aliens, Four Christmases) , as Lisa, does the best she can with her unforgiving role, and Rudd is as charming as he can be (though Wilson is a trial), but no one could get us honestly past the notion that we’re meant to take all these characters as delightfully oddball when they are quite clearly pathological. And that’s besides the problem of Jack Nicholson (The Bucket List, The Departed), as George’s father and coworker, embarrassingly wheezing his way through the movie, like he’s about to keel over with a coronary; or the problem of Brooks’ (As Good as It Gets) never giving us the sense that he had any of his meandering story under control.

Good stuff? The underappreciated Kathryn Hahn (The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, Step Brothers) as George’s assistant, who, in a single scene with her boyfriend, Al (Lenny Venito: Solitary Man, The Brave One), give us more romance, more authenticity, and more drama than the entire rest of the film. I wish How Do You Know were about her… except she’s already the kind of confident, secure woman who knows the answer.

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