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Review: How Do You Know

James Brooks' comedy falls short of expectations

How Do You Know?

Jack Nicholson and Paul Rudd star in Columbia Pictures' How Do You Know. — David James/2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc


Rated PG-13
Runtime: 116 mins.


En español  |  There’s no denying that James L. Brooks is responsible for some of the most funny-and-thoughtful movies and TV shows ever made: As Good as It Gets, Broadcast News, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and — for crying out loud! —The Simpsons. So let’s all just agree to write off How Do You Know as the result of a bad lunch, or some horrible advice, or, ideally, the work of space aliens who kidnapped the real James L. Brooks and replaced him with an android who has no sense of humor, or of pacing, or of the way actual humans speak.

Consider the movie’s pedigree, besides Brooks: Costar Paul Rudd (Role Models) manipulates funny lines with the sly skill of a three-card monte expert. Reese Witherspoon (Legally Blonde) is one of our great young screen comediennes. Owen Wilson (Wedding Crashers), with his clueless squint and ever-present sense of exasperation, makes you laugh before he even opens his mouth. And looming over the whole thing, like a great Macy’s parade balloon of quality assurance, is Mr. Gold Standard himself, Jack Nicholson.

And yet … and yet … there’s this nagging feeling that the four stars are working in four different movies, occasionally uttering lines to one another but never really hearing what the others are saying. Rudd plays a business guy who’s about to become the patsy in some vaguely explained federal investigation. Witherspoon is a self-involved softball player (apparently you can make a living at this) feeling old at 27. Wilson is a pitcher for the Washington Nationals baseball team (also straining credulity — Owens seems entirely too capable to pitch for the woeful Nats) who suspects his lifetime of one-night stands is catching up with him. And Nicholson, as Rudd’s father, occasionally drops in on the action, as if by rope and pulley, to try and breathe some oxygen into the room.

I think the idea behind How Do You Know was to weave these four characters into a tight little narrative. Instead, they flutter madly, occasionally slapping up against each other, like moths jockeying for position at a streetlight that’s going to burn them to cinders in any case.

Note to the cast and crew: We’re not going to hold this one against you. Now go out and do something good. Note to the aliens: Please, please return the real James L. Brooks!

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Your Scoop on Cinema

Movies for Grownups is focused on films with distinct relevance to a 50-plus audience. In reviews, previews and interviews, we look for actors and themes that speak to the experiences of older moviegoers. Find more about us on:


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