By Richard Schickel
Entering a James L. Brooks movie, I am always resolved not to be charmed out of my socks by the thing. But you know how it is—somewhere before the middle of “Terms of Endearment” or “Broadcast News” or “As Good as It Gets,” you get taken over by the film. That’s partly because his movies are not in reckless pursuit of laughs, partly because they are sometimes willing to contemplate life’s little sadnesses and frustrations wryly and ironically, maybe mostly because their charm is pursued at such a gently agreeable mood and pace. They’re sort of like a warm bath—complete with a few rubber duckies—at the end of a long, hard day.
So it is with “How Do You Know,” which is probably the least tightly wound and most languid of Brooks’ comedies yet remains a pleasant antidote to the annual holiday frenzy. Simply put, it tells the story of Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), who is involuntarily retired from her position as an international softball star, and George (Paul Rudd), scion of a tycoon so ruthless that he’s setting his own son up to go to jail for his own crimes. This role is played by Jack Nicholson, who in Brooks’ universe is ever the comic representative of our worst instincts. For a little lighter form of fecklessness there is Owen Wilson’s Matty, a cheerfully womanizing baseball star, who, serenely confident of his own wonderfulness, almost manages to seduce Lisa out of her normal common-sensicality.
It comes as no surprise that eventually—the film has a too-long running time for a romantic comedy—everything (except perhaps for the Nicholson character’s fate) gets neatly sorted out. Plots are the most conventionalized aspect of movies like this. You don’t imagine that true love is going to be permanently frustrated, do you? They run, as this one does, on performances and attitude, which are okey-dokey here—especially the work of Owen Wilson. He’s the kind of guy who keeps a drawerful of toothbrushes and closetful of casual morning clothes so the girl does not have to totter home in the fancy duds she was wearing the night before she fell into his bed. When a team party gets a little raucous, he helpfully suggests that members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes are having a quieter get-together in another room. He’s really near to sublime in his combination of unforced worldliness and rather endearing innocence.
Which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with the confusions that overtake Witherspoon’s normally practical Lisa. There’s good humor to be found in her humorlessness, which matches Rudd’s low-keyed squareness and his dawning, low-keyed realization that his old man is intent on screwing him (though with no hard feelings). Or with Nicholson’s predictably outrageous manipulativeness, his shows of anger alternating with shows of tenderness—both of which are false. The trick he brings to these roles is the sense he imparts that there is no core to his character. He’s always improvising emotions within whatever moment he’s trying to master without the loss of his essential amorality, which is funny and also alarming. He provides most of the edge that movies like “How Do You Know” need to overcome the ever-present threat of being too humane for their own good.
Even so, there is something sometimes too practiced about this movie. And too limited. These people do not often enough exceed the genre boundries set forth in the Guidebook to Successful Romcom Practice. They need to push the envelope more than they do, to give us a glimpse of authentic feelings—and authentic nuttiness, too. There was a time—when he was doing “Taxi” on television, or letting tragedy touch the lives he recorded in “Terms of Endearment”—when his references were, well, deepened by a wider emotional range. The threat of a little collateral emotional damage of a purely temporary sort would not have gone amiss in “How Do You Know.” Still, a film that is merely likable is not to be sneezed at, especially as we are about to endure yet another Christmas movie season that is far from merry. Sometime before Jan. 2, you’re going to fall gratefully on this movie and think that it’s better than merely good enough.
Another harmless charmer: Owen Wilson and Reese Witherspoon have a moment in James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know.”