Sunday, July 10, 2011
How Do You Know has scenes like that, in which Paul Rudd -- playing the usual nice, befuddled Paul Rudd character, who had some kind of unspecified executive position in an unspecified family business until a loudly unspecified scandal leads to his being shown the door in a vague and unspecified manner -- cringes and whines while Jack Nicholson, overacting even above his usual career highs as Rudd's father, bites off pieces of the scenery and blathers very loudly in terribly Nicholsonian lines that don't actually explain anything, make any sense, or follow logically from the things Rudd says.  Every time How Do You Know heads into a Rudd-Nicholson scene, the audience knows that expensive backgrounds will be extensively masticated, but that the story of the movie will be slightly less clear for every one of Nicholson's lines.
Of course, Rudd and Nicholson aren't the center of this movie -- and thank god for that. This is actually Reese Witherspoon's story: she's what seems to be the single most popular and talented player on the US women's national softball team, practically singlehandedly responsible for their recent Olympic gold medal. But she's also getting older, so the new coach cuts her in a way no coach would ever cut his most popular and talented player, and this movie's world is such that the single most popular and talented softball player in the country has no possible career options after being cut. There aren't, oh, let me just pull this out of thin air, several dozen schools that have already made contact with her to talk about her becoming a coach after she retires from playing, because that wouldn't lead to poor spunky Reese Witherspoon having the maximum opportunities to show how determined and spunky she can be, even when horribly downtrodden.
So Rudd is troubled and whiny about it, and Witherspoon is troubled but eternally upbeat about it, spouting a series of sports cliches to anyone who will stand still close to her long enough to listen. They they must Meet Cute and help each other through their respective troubles, yes?
Well, not immediately -- that's only a minor thread here, in a movie that wanders around giving work to a lot of good actors that almost all try to drag this to being a movie about them. The one exception -- and the only still point in this whirling dervish of a film -- is Owen Wilson, preternaturally laid-back as a star major league pitcher who Witherspoon falls into bed with early on and then into a relationship with, more or less. Wilson is the only one in the movie who's just there, inhabiting his character and living in this world, without special pleading or histrionics. We the audience know that we shouldn't be rooting for Witherspoon to end up with him -- we know that Rudd is a bigger movie star this year, and his troubles are too obviously a mirror of hers -- but we just want to see more of Wilson and less of Rudd, so we find ourselves happy when that shock of blond hair wanders into the shot again and again.
How Do You Know is neither a romantic comedy nor a serious drama, though it tries semi-seriously to be the former and wishes that it had the gravitas for the latter. It is a mess, though it was made with great piles of money by a lot of very successful, very rich people, starting with James L. Brooks, who both wrote and directed this. One has to assume that he was having a bad day when he did so. How do I know? I've seen his movie.
 By the way, only one of the very many ways in which How Do You Know badly bobbles itself is in its treatment of that corporate scandal. Rudd appears to have been the company CFO, since the dialogue implies that he certified financial statements -- sent him by Nicholson's office -- that were not actually true. And, because of this, he's being investigated by what probably is the SEC in a lackadaisical way that sees him have to lawyer up -- with a very specific, very expensive lawyer, for no stated reason -- but does not have those investigators talk to him, or anyone else in the company, or indeed appear in this movie at all. Plus, the company immediately cuts him loose with no severance, but still seems to think it has a way to hush him up. Oh, and Nicholson admits to breaking an entirely different federal law -- FCPA, look it up -- in what is apparently supposed to be an explanation but fails, horribly, like so much else in this movie. For the final indignity, untrained, not-actually-doing-anything Rudd is supposedly the entire finance department of this unnamed company, since we never hear or see anyone else beside Nicholson, the presumed CEO.