Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon in Gloriously Romantic ‘How Do You Know’

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Average: 4 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Writer/Director James L. Brooks has been producing prime entertainment for nearly 50 years now, and proves he has not lost a step in ‘How Do You Know.’ This film of love, loss, power and especially romance is a great showcase for the talents of Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and the great Jack Nicholson.

The beauty of How Do You Know is in its simplicity, a basic love triangle in the will-she-or-won’t-she mode, but placed in a modern setting where the stakes are higher, where money and power is a seducing tool, and the relationship between a father and son may actually overcome the obvious love connection between a couple of very distracted adults.

Reese Witherspoon convincingly plays a woman softball player named Lisa, one who has achieved gold medal status at the Olympics. Her anticipation is that she will be named to the American team once again, despite her advanced age of 31 years. She also has just started dating a major league baseball pitcher named Matty (Owen Wilson), and serious sparks are flying between them.

Paul Rudd is George, a decent fellow with a high profile job in the law firm of his father Charles (Jack Nicholson). He receives a strange summons from the federal government, accusing the firm he is now directing of high level malfeasance. Confused at first, it turns out that George has been picked to take the fall for the entire operation, having to do with some shady dealings his father pursued. He is given the status of ghost, as the firm cannot legally support him. To make matters worst, his girlfriend dumps him because of his troubles.

This is the point where Lisa and George meet. On the day that Lisa finds out she won’t make the Olympic softball team, and George has literally run away from his father, they decide to follow through on a long ago set-up blind date. It goes quite badly, but not so bad as they make a bit of a connection. Lisa goes on to pursue her budding relationship with the pitcher Matty, and to her surprise he offers that they should live together.

So Grows the Twig: Jack Nicholson as Charles the Father and Paul Rudd as George the Son in ‘How Do You Know’
So Grows the Twig: Jack Nicholson as Charles the Father and Paul Rudd as George the Son in ‘How Do You Know’
Photo credit: © Columbia Pictures

This is the scenario and these are the complications as the love triangle begins. George seeks out Lisa, who isn’t sure about Matty and leans on George during her confusion. George must decide if he is going to take punishment for his father’s actions. Although the title of the film may sound cryptic, all of the main cast is trying to answer the question, “how do you know?”

There is a mature reflectiveness in this narrative that makes all the characters, even though they are a bit high concept, work at a superior level. Most impressive, believe it or not, is Owen Wilson as Matty, who totally gets the rather subtle machinations of a bounder like his million dollar pitcher role, which I’m sure is not too far off from millionaire movie star. He was willing to expose the general nature of getting-everything-you-want quite effectively, and this is his strongest performance in years. In fact, it is a bit deceptive. It seems like a typical “Owen Wilson” persona, but it ends up being so much more.

The other players in the love triangle, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd, have a nice chemistry that is palpable even through their problematic circumstances. Rudd is downtrodden without being completely out, which makes his characterization blessedly delicate. He holds his own against the scene stealing of Mr. Nicholson, and has a nice moment when a proper accusation must be rendered against his father. Witherspoon plays a somewhat cloudy person after being cut from the team, and most of the film she impressively works her way out from underneath it.

The old pro Jack Nicholson has some fine, even “Jack” moments in How Do You Know. At the twilight of his long career he still has a presence, still reaches for character nuances and still has the famous smile. He is the comfort food in this narrative, flitting about the lovers like a persistent flea and overseeing the proceedings as if he were Zeus, if Zeus were slightly corrupt. He relishes the role, and it shines through.

The script and direction of James L. Brooks hearkens back to his glory days of “Terms of Endearment.” Although all the characters are on a pretty big stage in life (financier, lawyer, Olympic champion, pitcher) they are human, and wear their humanity as best they can. Background characters like legal adviser Ron (Mark Linn-Baker), the psychiatrist (Tony Shalhoub) and especially Annie (George’s assistant, played by Kathryn Hahn) become almost like love fairies to the triangle, giving actionable support in small but amazing doses. This is what Brooks does best, he creates empathetic human beings who are seekers of truth and in this case, love.

Reese Witherspoon as Lisa and Owen Wilson as Matty in ‘How Do You Know’
Reese Witherspoon as Lisa and Owen Wilson as Matty in ‘How Do You Know’
Photo credit: © Columbia Pictures

This is an unabashedly romantic picture, but the romance is not sticky sweet, it’s based more on risk taking against long and seemingly impossible odds. The lure of material comfort, the loyalty of single father and the crushing defeat of losing everything are not situations against which to begin a coupling, but somehow this type of passionate backdrop ups the ante on romance.

One of the nice old fashion devices in this film is the use of a bus, where journeys are made if the characters decide to ride. The vehicle comes at opportune and inopportune moments, symbolic of the choices that need to be made. As the old rhyme says, “get on the bus, Gus.”

”How Do I Know” opens everywhere December 17th. Featuring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Tony Shaloub, Kathryn Hahn, Mark Linn-Baker and Jack Nicholson. Written and directed by James L. Brooks. Rated “PG-13” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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