In 1997, James L. Brooks wrote and directed As Good As It Gets, a film about a misanthropic author (Jack Nicholson) with so little experience with human connection that he is incapable of expressing himself, a theme he picked up again in Spanglish, using a language barrier to deliver it. How Do You Know takes a variation of Nicholson’s character and applies it to all three principals, and the result is a film that is profoundly stuck. It’s about three individuals incapable of connecting on an emotional level trying to do just that without a guide, without a grounded single-mother waitress, a cute kid, and a gay neighbor to draw it out. It’s just three people gesticulating wildly and clumsily stammering empty sentiment in the area of one another.
How Do You Know may not be the worst movie of the year, but it is one of the more excruciating to endure. It’s not the lightweight, romantic frivolity — a silly little film that casually passes the time — that you’d expect from a movie featuring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd. It’s a film that looks superficially like a guilty pleasure rom-com, but that strives to be deeper. Unfortunately, it’s thematically confused and heavy-handed, belabored to the point of torture. James Brooks is trying desperately to say something, but like his characters in the film, he’s incapable of getting his point across, no matter how many angles he takes. There are scenes that make little sense, that seem divorced from the context of the rest of the film, and yet other scenes that redundantly fail to express the same sentiments he fails to express in previous scenes. Jack Nicholson, meanwhile, is shoehorned into the film, as though he walked off the set of a different movie and got lost in How Do You Know.
It’s a bizarre, disjointed, almost nonsensical film, and it’s impossible to express how unpleasant and confusing an experience it is to watch. Given the truly inexplicable $120 million it costs to make, I’m not all together certain that Brooks hasn’t gone a little senile. I don’t mean that in a playful or sarcastic sense; I’m truly concerned that Brooks is missing some of his mental faculties and that the cast went along out of patronizing deference to a doddering out-of-touch old man and not because they had any connection with the characters they were trying to depict. They’re not even characters — they’re the human embodiments of unformed thoughts stumbling awkwardly through scenes with misguided blind faith that, in the end, Brooks will make sense of it all.
He never does.
Paul Rudd plays George. George runs a company of which his father (Nicholson) is on the board. Rudd is facing a federal indictment for reasons that are barely explained and given no context whatsoever. We know that he’s in trouble, and that’s the extent of the knowledge we’re given. Reese Witherspoon’s Lisa is an Olympic softball player (seriously) cut from the team because, at 31, she’s lost a step. Meanwhile, Matty (Owen Wilson) is a professional baseball player so removed from reality that he doesn’t know how to interact with a woman on anything but a superficial level. Lisa gets involved with Matty (it’s never explained how; there must be a meet cute sitting somewhere on an editing room floor) because she needs an insensitive person in her life to offset her feelings about being cut from the Olympic team. It makes about as much sense as it sounds.
While she’s dating Matty, Lisa goes on a blind date with George, and because both of them have only just received terrible news, they decide not to speak during the meal. Somehow, George feels connected to Lisa’s silence, and through circumstance the two eventually become friends, which leads to a lot of stammering, a lot of talking about the process of talking to one another, and an out-of-left-field story about the origins of Play-Doh, which doubles as the big romantic gesture. Don’t ask.
Tony Shalhoub has one scene in the film. He plays a therapist to Lisa, and offers her one bit of advice before she thinks better of her decision to seek therapy. He says, “Figure out what you want to do with your life, and learn how to ask the questions to get there.” At the moment, it feels like the film’s central thesis, but it hangs, never to be addressed again. It is precisely that advice that Brooks fails to follow. He doesn’t know the questions to ask, and maybe that’s why the title is missing the question mark. Maybe that’s the point Brooks is trying to make: If you can’t figure out what you want to do with your movie, you’ll end up with an aimless incoherent film that wastes an immense amount of talent. If that’s the case, and with all due respect to Brooks, it’s too much to ask of an audience to swallow a schmaltzy life lesson derived from his failures as a filmmaker.