January 02, 2011

MOVIES: How Do You Know (James L. Brooks, 2010)

I can understand why some people will hate How Do You Know, but I liked it a lot.

Reese Witherspoon is at the middle of the movie's romantic triangle. She plays Lisa, who's just been cut from the U.S. softball team, not so much for incompetence as for age -- she's 31, after all, and there are younger players who can get to first base a step faster.

Paul Rudd, as George, faces professional problems of his own, as the target of a federal investigation for financial improprieties (that are never explained very well), and he suspects that his father (Jack Nicholson) may actually be the guilty party.

Their first meeting doesn't go particularly well, what with both of them still reeling from their respective crises, and by the time George gets a chance to make a better impression, Lisa's gotten involved with Matty (Owen Wilson). Wilson is terrific here; his Matty is clueless about what Lisa needs or wants, but he's so utterly charming and lovable that it's impossible for her (or us) to stay mad at him for very long. It's such a strong performance that it threatens to throw the triangle entirely out of whack.

I've always been puzzled by Paul Rudd. He's very likable and talented, but in leading roles, I  find that he falls just short of the charisma and presence that are required. He's stronger here than usual -- his best moments are with Kathryn Hahn, who plays his devoted secretary -- but still not quite at the level of his co-stars.

The story here is a bit less tidy than the standard rom-com, and there are fewer obvious punchlines in the dialogue; it's more about awkward pauses, difficult moments, and conversations that don't go as hoped. But I like that sloppiness, and the movie has a pleasantly relaxed feel. Yes, everything is neatly tied up at the end, and Witherspoon makes the choice you knew she would, but even if the ending is overly predictable, the twists and turns involved in getting there are less so.

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