Sunday, December 26, 2010

Movie with Abe: How Do You Know

How Do You Know
Directed by James L. Brooks
Released December 17, 2010

It’s not entirely wise to expect much from a holiday season romantic comedy. The time at which the year’s top Oscar contenders are released often offers up a slew of lesser quality films for movie-going audiences. But when three of the director’s five films are past Best Picture nominees, not to mention some highly acclaimed romantic comedies, and the star is a popular and funny comedic actress, expectations are considerably higher. Unfortunately, “How Do You Know,” a film that takes a question as its title, isn’t terribly sure of what it wants to be as a movie and that’s quite a problem.

Reese Witherspoon, whose last live-action feature film was the very lacking “Four Christmases” from 2008, is Lisa, a successful athlete who hasn’t found nearly as much success in the romance department. Though she’s staunchly aggressive and fierce on the field, Lisa is a character who doesn’t know exactly what it is she wants and definitely isn’t prepared to try to tell anyone else who might be interested what they’re not doing right or what they could be doing better. Instead, she panders to poor behavior on the part of her selfish boyfriend Mattie (Owen Wilson) by apologizing for her own perceived wrongdoing when he’s the one who’s done something wrong.

The question of “how do you know” is far less relevant and compelling if the characters in question don’t have many good qualities. That’s hardly the worst of the film’s problems, however. The film speedily loses its focus on Lisa’s love life by devoting too much attention to background characters and silly scenarios that don’t make much sense. The conversations and interactions in the film are highly unbelievable and forced, and it’s often painful to watch the generally likeable George (Paul Rudd) interact so awkwardly and uncomfortably with Lisa.

Lisa, for her part, isn’t terribly sympathetic either. In order to shed her American sweetheart image, Witherspoon puts most of her efforts into sounding like a tomboy uninterested in love rather than an able comedic lead. It’s hard to get behind a character who doesn’t seem to have many good qualities yet demands a good deal of pity. Wilson doesn’t appear to be acting at all, talking as loudly as possible in order to make the most of his excessively-showcased scenes. Jack Nicholson, who plays George’s CEO father, is just phoning his performance in, which is disappointing and grating. Rudd, probably the film’s strongest player, is essentially a loose cannon whose wild mannerisms are meant to make him endearing.

If, by some miracle, these characters are able to determine if in fact they do love each other, the audience will have a much tougher time. All of the players in the messy story are hopelessly underdeveloped, and their personalities are about as thin as they come. This is the definition of a romantic comedy that doesn’t even really try to be either romantic or funny. Looking at it alongside one of director James L. Brooks’ previous films, “As Good As It Gets,” it’s clear just how lazy this overlong, relatively boring and off-putting miserable holiday movie is.


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