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How Do You Know

December 19, 2010

How Do You Know

The last major romantic comedy going into the holiday season is James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know. It’s not As Good as It Gets, but it’s a strong showing even so.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional softball player who has devoted her entire life to the sport. While other players on the US national team have made at least vague plans about their lives after the game, she thinks of little else. Unfortunately, she’s reaching her 30s, she’s slowing down, and she gets cut from the team. She floats somewhat aimlessly, building up a relationship with Matty (Owen Wilson), an overgrown frat-boy of a star pitcher for the Washington Nationals. But her heart isn’t always in it, and she feels adrift after losing the only thing in her life that’s really meant anything.

George (Paul Rudd) is a high-powered executive running a company primarily owned by his father Charles (Jack Nicholson). In quick succession he becomes the target of a federal investigation for securities fraud, his girlfriend leaves him, and he has to sell everything he owns to pay a legal retainer since the company refuses to pick up the bill. Nobody from the company will talk to him except his former assistant (Kathryn Hahn) and sometimes his father. He, too, feels aimless and adrift.

Lisa and George come together first through a blind date, and later through a few coincidences. Neither one of them really knows how they’re supposed to move forward, and yet time has a way of marching on. George’s legal problems deepen; Lisa finds more misgivings about her relationship with Matty. The titular question comes up less as standard rom-com ambivalence, but more as a deep, existential angst. I can easily see someone who has never faced that sort of open-ended doubt failing to identify with either main character, which is sort of a weakness in the long run. On the other hand, the same can be said of the surprisingly dark reading As Good as It Gets gives to its own title, so there’s something in Brooks’ writing that lends itself to these sorts of feelings.

This isn’t a hurried movie, nor is it a particularly happy one. There’s no standard montage of the happy couple doing happy couple things together. Things don’t click together just-so, like we’ve been trained to expect. These people are scared and lost and just trying to get through one more day as best as they know how. They trip and stumble gracelessly over their words and over each others’; at its best it feels more like real people talking.

But there’s also a lot of time spent not talking, which is dangerous in both movies and relationships. Whole scenes are structured around their absolute lack of dialogue. Even when there are words to be said, a lot of the meaning is carried in the long pauses, or it’s to be found in a part of the frame where the speaker isn’t. It takes some real courage for Brooks to put these sort of scenes out there, and it takes even more skill for Witherspoon and Rudd to carry them as well as they do. Their faces, their movements, and even the way they sit or stand; these are where the real communication takes place. They both deliver excellent performances that could all too easily be entirely missed by an inattentive audience just looking for a feelgood boy-meets-girl story.

Worth it: yes.
Bechdel test: This is sort of close but I’m going to have to come down on the fail side.

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