Friday, December 17, 2010

Movie review: James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson (with trailer video)

Posted By on Fri, Dec 17, 2010 at 2:11 PM

How Do You Know

Yes, there’s a rom-com predictability and veneer to James L. Brooks’s latest, How Do You Know. But in this case, the old saw holds true that the journey is more important than the destination. And it’s the detours along the way that make this particular entry in a well-worn genre rather refreshing.

What makes How Do You Know such a pleasure to watch — as with other Brooks films — resides in its main characters’ ability to convey their self-awareness, especially in the midst of various struggles. It’s that admirable trait which gives each of the characters dimension and makes them all the more sympathetic as they deal with their individual needs for control.

As the main vertex of the film’s love triangle, Reese Witherspoon’s no-nonsense Lisa has a bathroom mirror that is peppered with sticky notes, each announcing some sort of self-help phrase — variations on the theme of “there is no success without struggle.” In the midst of dealing with life-changing news, she starts dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a professional baseball player with more than a few notches on his headboard.

How Do You Know

Matty’s somewhat unlikely rival is George (a wonderfully vulnerable and appealing Paul Rudd), who exercises his control by determining when and where he receives potentially frustrating information. In more than one scene, George is either begging his father to come right out with bad news or is literally running away from him to avoid the same. But equally important to George is that he isn’t perceived as too weak or soft. The irony is that George wears his emotions so openly, it’s hard for others not to treat him with kid gloves. In stark contrast, George’s father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), expresses his own self-awareness as a form of manipulation disguised as confessional.

In his portrayal of Lisa’s jock boyfriend Matty, Wilson brings a genuine sweetness to the role of a ladies’ man who goes above and beyond to give his lovers five-star guest treatment. He’s naive enough not to realize that his brand of hospitality could justifiably be perceived as impersonal. Matty is also so disconcertingly self-conscious of when he’s doing the textbook “right” thing in a relationship that he’s all too eager to remind Lisa of said fact. He approximates the facade of understanding without having to expend the energy of actually understanding.

Brooks’ interest in the levels of control and empathy in romantic relationships takes precedence over conventional plot. Instead, he layers his film with little touches to reveal a poignant snapshot of people living their lives as a series of challenges and awakenings. For Brooks, the real value in love is discovered when people are able to bare their flaws to one another and are open enough to accept the same in their significant others. It’s a point he drives home through a plot contrivance that allows him to stage a particularly blunt scene twice.

Brooks is less interested in the particular outcomes of Lisa’s and George’s career dilemmas than with their emotional fallout. And if he trades depth of analysis for nuance, his film doesn’t suffer for it. Despite its romantic-comedy trappings, How Do You Know is as serious and sincere about its subject as any of the would-be award winners that arrive at theaters during the holiday season. Even if taken as a genre entry, it still stands as a pretty distinguished effort.

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