Pro-softballer Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) gets cut from the olympic team and her world is rattled. Love's the answer (I guess) but how can she decide between a narcisstic, womanizing, major leaguer (Owen Wilson) and a boyish, lost-puppy, corporate scapegoat (Paul Rudd)? (Hhhmmm, that's a toughy). But how do you know when your in love? That is the titular question that this rambling, murky, and inconsequential film attempts to contemplate.
If you think that sounds corny, it is. Witherspoon - Ms. Adorable with pitch-perfect reactions - gives the mopey and mixed up Lisa her all. But James L. Brooks directs and pens this romcom like a wannabe self-help guru, imparting inane life-lessons of the Jerry-Springer-final-thought variety. Lisa's bathroom mirror is strewn with Postit-notes that read cheesy, go-getter, imperatives: "You see obstacles only after losing sight of your goals." Write that down.
Rudd is the nice-guy to Wilson's jock-jerk. Lisa strings both men along, hopsctoching between them. She's a sulker and stalks off frequently; like when she discovers that Wilson's Matty has sleep-over-clothes for one-night-stands or later when she realizes he's not monogamous (big shock that the guys a pompous ass). Rudd's George is being investigated for shadey deals involving his papa's company. He's innocent, but catches the wrath anyway and is hung out to dry by his associates. A hormonal and pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) stays loyal, but even she can't help him out of his funk. That problem's saved for the magical remedies of love. Can George and Lisa really save each other?
Just like all its predecessors, How Do You Know thrives on awkward exchanges. Unlike spring's When In Rome or Leap Year, were not subject to grating, scewball-physicality, but instead the numskullery is related in pretensious, pointless conversations. These characters open their mouths, but nothing of substance comes out. The film's best scene might be Lisa and George's first date when the discomfort level reaches a pinnacle and both decide to sustain silence then on. It said more than most of Brooks' therapy-talk put together.
To be fair, How Do You Know is basically watchable, and benign. The cast is talented and doing their best, especially Jack Nicholson who steels scenes as George's crooked, shark-suited father. Nicholson makes the most of the character's sleezy cowardice, getting some laughs in-tow. But the script is boring, the pacing arduous, and the situations so inorganic and spurious that these characters seem to float away in some lovesick and lofty artifice: problems history, self-improvement unnecessary. It's ironic because Brooks thinks he'll rescue the lovelorn with his expert insights. But Witherspoon and co. aren't avatars into the nuts-and-bolts aspects of relationships, they're as alien as the inhabitants of district 9. (Sigh). This film really could have been so much better.
How Do You Know serves up the cornball romanticism with artificial sugar. If that's your cup of tea then bottoms up. But this tea's also laced with sedative. Sleep tight.