Silver Screen: How Do You Know ***

Silver Screen: How Do You Know  ***
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Silver Screen: How Do You Know ***
Bryan Miller

There's an awful lot wrong with the holiday-season romantic dramedy How Do You Know.

Let's start with the vague, almost defiantly meaningless (and improperly punctuated) title, which you will likely forget even before you're done watching the movie. Writer and director James L. Brooks, along with fellow aging baby boomer auteur Nancy Meyers, seems intent on crafting the most pronoun-laden, empty titles for movies as possible: Between the two of them they are responsible for How Do You Know, Something's Gotta Give, As Good as It Gets, and It's Complicated. Keep an eye out for their upcoming releases that also sound like a mobster ordering drugs on a cell phone, Some Things About People and The Guy Who Came to That Place One Time.

The title isn't the only thing fuzzy and ill-defined about Brooks's latest, which establishes a love triangle before abandoning all symmetry and structure. The insubstantial plot strains to fill the ungainly, oddly constructed vessel of a screenplay the way a bucket of water would puddle and drip in odd configurations if tossed into a swimming pool designed by Frank Gehry. Yet How Do You Know is a surprisingly likeable if unambitious movie, and often it's the shaggy edges and general aimlessness of the whole project that lead to its best scenes and most honest moments.

The adorable, diamond-headed Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa, an Olympic softball player unknowingly cresting the apex of her career. She lives her life by the athlete's credo of one play at a time-- one of the most ingenious and telling details in the movie is Lisa's vanity mirror, which is feathered with Post-it notes and taped scraps of paper bearing the Zen koans for meatheads you might see etched on a locker-room wall: "Every obstacle is an opportunity to excel," "A failure is a success you haven't unlocked yet," et cetera. Trite though they may seem, this menagerie of mantras constitutes Lisa's practical philosophy, and it has yielded great rewards. But for the first time in her life, running more laps, working harder, and adhering to the choicest of cliché s isn't going to be enough to sustain her.

Meanwhile, good-humored but naively open-hearted money manager George (Paul Rudd) is facing his own, more dramatic downfall. The company he inherited from his CEO father (Jack Nicholson) is under investigation by the federal government, and to insulate the business and protect its creator, George is being offered up to the feds as a sacrifice. This sets in motion a string of personal catastrophes that leaves George without a single bright spot in his life-- save for a blind date he had with Lisa, a fellow member of the walking wounded.

The catch: Lisa is currently dating a multimillionaire baseball star (Owen Wilson) who swears he's going to curtail his playboy lifestyle for the plucky softballer.

You can pretty much imagine where it goes from here. In fact, you always know exactly where How Do You Know is going, even when it isn't going anywhere, which is most of the time. It's a movie that seems as frazzled and distracted as its characters, who are never thinking about the moment they're in and interrupt every conversation to take calls from their incessantly ringing cell phones.

It is, as it sounds, kind of annoying.

Yet Brooks, a progenitor and pioneer of the now-ubiquitous dramedy, still hasn't lost his touch for flawed but sympathetic characters and winning dialogue that nicely splits the difference between witty repartee and naturalistic conversation. And that's really all a movie like this needs to work. Witherspoon's character in particular is unique, a strong-willed and absolutely believable female athlete whose stoic determination has alienated her from other aspects of her life. Hers isn't the standard-issue career-or-family dilemma, but rather a crisis of faith in the very notions that construct her identity and her sense of self-confidence. That Brooks can write the character without letting her become self-involved is impressive, and Witherspoon actualizes the character wonderfully.

Granted, the movie would work a lot better if, say, the Owen Wilson character, who pretty much resembles every character Owen Wilson has ever played, was less easy comic relief and a more plausible romantic rival. Even as a megarich athlete, he's an obviously unsuitable candidate for Lisa, too clueless to be believed, and, inevitably, too happy to abdicate his affection with a smile so the movie can end properly. But Rudd and Witherspoon-- with fairly little help from Nicholson, who's mostly a non-factor-- make it work... whatever it is.