by D.W. Lundberg

Friday, May 13, 2011


Another entry in a (potentially) long list of titles that aren't quite as bad as their reputations would have you believe. Or vice versa, for movies that fail to live up to the hype.

So here we are again. Up to this point, we've covered an OK movie that's not quite as bad as everyone would have you believe, and a movie that's a lot better than I actually expected. That's what happens when you temper your expectations a bit – more often than not, you wind up pleasantly surprised. (Not that I'd tell anyone to rush out and see Jonah Hex, but still.)

But what happens when you expect something more out of a movie than what you actually get?

James L. Brooks has been a mainstay in our entertainment culture for decades – longer than people probably realize. He started his career as a writer for CBS News during the 1960s, wrote episodes of My Three Sons and The Andy Griffith Show that same decade, won multiple Emmys for his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, and then graduated to the title of Academy Award winner for writing and directing Terms Of Endearment in 1983. That's a fairly impressive career trajectory for a kid raised in Jersey, but even then he refused to rest on his laurels, and channeled his journalism experience into his next project, 1987's Broadcast News, which pretty much solidified Brooks as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

The fiasco with 1994's I'll Do Anything came next, of course (Brooks infamously tried his hand at a grandiose Hollywood musical, only to cut every single musical number after disastrous preview screenings), but he bounced back with As Good As It Gets three years later, which won Best Actor/ Actress Oscars for Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. (Nicholson had previously won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Terms Of Endearment.) In between, Brooks also helped produce Big (with Tom Hanks), Jerry Maguire and The Simpsons (which is about to complete its 22nd season run on Fox television). In short, Brooks has seen his fair share of successes.

Spanglish notwithstanding (a movie I remember for its atypically-modulated Adam Sandler performance, the gorgeous Paz Vega, and not much else), a new film from James L. Brooks is still cause for minor celebration. At least you're guaranteed the kind of breezy-sweet, scintillating entertainment that puts lesser Comedies to shame, right? Right?

Alas, nothing in this world is "guaranteed," it would seem. Popping his latest big-screen project, last year's How Do You Know, into the Blu-Ray player at home, I was unprepared for the disappointment I would feel two hours later. Not that it's a terrible movie, mind you, it's just an incredibly slight one, and that's a problem.

It's the story of a guy and a gal whose personal lives cross paths just as their professional lives hit rock bottom. The gal (Reese Witherspoon) is a veteran softball player who's been cut from the Olympic team because of her age (30). The guy (Paul Rudd) is an executive at a posh D.C. business firm who's facing indictment for corporate fraud. This being a Romantic Comedy, however, it takes them a good long while before they realize they are Meant For Each Other. Witherspoon's recently fallen into bed with a self-centered major league pitcher (Owen Wilson), while Rudd is busy coping with the discovery that his gruff, unappreciative father (Nicholson again) is actually responsible for the corporate malfeasance he's being indicted for.

With that kind of setup, we should be primed for some hilarious screwball shenanigans, but Brooks, oddly, dials back on the screwball instead. Oh, the Brooks-ian touchstones are still there – the witty banter, the awkward/comic heartbreak, the characters too wrapped up in themselves to see past their own neuroses – but this time there's no emotional payoff, and worse, the jokes don't stick. His dialogue scenes feel like we've been dropped into the middle of conversations we don't understand, and just when we're finally caught up ("Oh, I get it – I'm supposed to be laughing hysterically because these people talk and talk without ever getting to the point!"), we're immediately ushered on to the next one. (On one occasion, Rudd literally runs off screen before Nicholson can give him some valuable information.)

And despite this report that says Brooks spent "hundreds of hours" interviewing softball players and business executives as research for his screenplay, it's strange how little we see the characters doing actual work. (They mostly stand around, feeling sorry for themselves.) We see Wilson hounded by autograph-seekers, and later, sitting in the bullpen with his teammates, but he never practices a single throw. We witness a single, solitary shot of Witherspoon practicing with her fellow Olympic hopefuls, but she's interrupted by a cell phone call and has to step off the field. We see Rudd standing in his office, dressed in a suit, but then he's served with government papers and is forced off the premises. (Reading the reviews for the movie, I'm happy to see I wasn't the only one confused as to what Rudd's character actually does for a living.) I'm sure the point is to show us how these people react in the face of existential crises, but where, exactly, did all that research disappear to? Couldn't these characters just as easily worked as office clerks, grocery baggers, used car salesmen? Or did Brooks merely stumble onto the fact that ball players and business types can be as equally indecisive as the other?

Or maybe I just answered my own question. Ah, I see it now. In matters of love and life, we're all this flaky and shallow – no matter what our individual career paths may be. There's your point. I'll have to mull that over for a bit. Hm.

Nope. Still not interested.

The actors do well enough, I guess, but the material they've been given is superficial at best, and no amount of eye-rolling or exasperated arm- flailing can make this any funnier than it actually is. There's no real drama to the thing, no sense of loss or triumph at the end (Rudd's predicament isn't so much resolved as it's simply passed on to a different character). How Do You Know just kind of lies there, flat, and that's the most depressing thing about it. It's virtually indistinguishable from the half-dozen other Romantic Comedies currently occupying your local Redbox.

Sadly, I can't think of a worse way to describe a movie from the great James L. Brooks.

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