By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
How Do You Know is a terrible title for a not-much-better movie, missing a grammatically correct question mark and most of the point with romantic comedies. James L. Brooks' latest evidence of declining skill is rarely romantic and barely amusing, dashing any hope that Spanglish was just a fluke.
A better title would be Can We Talk for a Minute? (note the proper punctuation) since that phrase or some version of it is a recurring line in Brooks' verbally stressed screenplay. People are constantly invited to share their feelings about what's obviously going on, often interrupted in mid-sentence by anything to extend the proceedings.
I'm not kidding: At one point, a man asks to speak to a woman at a party, takes her to a balcony to chat, gets things off his chest, returns to the party — and asks to speak with her again. Same topic and temperaments, but Brooks apparently has a bit more dialogue crafted beyond the level at which people truly speak to shove into his actors' mouths.
These aren't even interesting people, although the celebrities playing them bring a degree of fascination to the table. But I never dreamed that seeing Jack Nicholson in a movie would make me wish he wasn't there. (Well, there's Man Trouble but that was a long time ago.) As a favor to his pal Brooks — they have won Oscars together, you know — Nicholson is saddled with that most embarrassing of roles, the one that needn't be there.
He's the conniving industrialist growling at the edges of a standard love triangle involving a woman who doesn't know what she wants (Reese Witherspoon), the guy she's sleeping with (Owen Wilson) and the guy she should be sleeping with (Paul Rudd). Wilson's horndog pro baseball player Matty is the most likable of the bunch, since he's toting the least baggage with the naughtiest flair.
Witherspoon's Lisa has issues stemming from being cut from the U.S. softball team after years of gold-medal stardom. Rudd's George has issues with a federal investigation into his father's stock trading, but he's innocent and mostly incongruous. The segments of How Do You Know with Lisa and Matty clumsily working things out are okay, and probably are where Brooks should have concentrated. But paying a reported $50 million for actors means everybody needs something to do, even if it leads nowhere.
Even a character showing up for only one scene gets a soliloquy. You could swear that How Do You Know is a stage play adaptation needing to be "opened up" more, as confined to one interior set for long durations as it is, with little else to offer than small talk with big words. Brooks is the mind behind such emotionally trenchant movies as Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, not to mention TV landmarks like Taxi and The Simpsons.
But going strictly on what's displayed here, how would you know?