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Entries in How Do You Know [2010] (1)

Thursday
Dec302010

How Do You KNow (2010)

Boys are Stupid

It’s December 30, 2010; the eve of New Year’s Eve.  I have three films to watch and review in the next day-and-a-half in order to compile my “Top Ten” list for the year—which I then must write before Saturday.  For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been cramming in as much movie-watching as possible to make sure there's nothing I’ve missed or skipped that I might want to include.

Not only will James L. Brooks’s How Do You Know not make that list, I felt like the two hours I spent trapped in a theatre last night were a cosmic obstacle preventing me from seeing better movies.  The evening wasn’t a total wash, as it marked eleven years since my wife and I started dating.  We have an unofficial ritual of seeing bad movies on our anniversary, but they’re usually the bad kind that can be laughed at—not merely survived.

To help myself invest an ounce of interest in writing this review, I present five “How Do You Know” questions and answers (a classic “Call and Response” from my altar boy days).  Hopefully, your answers will vary: I assume you’re a cognizant, literate human being with life experience, and my responses are only relevant to the characters found in this movie.

1.  How Do You Know You’re a Rom-Com Cliché?  If you’re Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), all you have to do is continue living your life as if you’ve never learned anything about relationships, and stay focused exclusively on your failing professional softball career.  For example, when you wake up after a one-night-stand with a vacuous baseball star named Matty (Owen Wilson) and find that he has an entire portion of his bathroom dedicated to extra toothbrushes and outfits for groupie poon, put up a fuss and storm out—but be sure to storm right back in and forgive him for “just being himself” and then dive head-first into dating.  Ignore the fact that Matty doesn’t give any indication that you’re the last stop on the fuck train, and you’re all set.

2.  How Do You Know You’re a Weak Stand-in for Half-Realized Social Commentary?  If you’re George (Paul Rudd), all you have to do is be the Nice Guy head of a large company who allows his dad to swindle him into being indicted for wire fraud.  At the beginning of the film, George grandstands in front of pop (Jack Nicholson, looking more and more like a Stoli-soaked puffer fish), announcing that, as acting head of the company, he is responsible for knowing whether or not the stock was manipulated to mislead shareholders.  He’s absolutely right, and throughout the rest of the film, as George deals with impending jail time and his dad—the company founder—edges further and further away from him, I kept wondering how George could have been that clueless about his business's day-to-day operations .

Maybe there were thousands of suit-wearing saps who took the fall for powerful business interests at the start of The Great Recession, but How Do You Know makes no effort to explain why we should care about George when his falling asleep at the wheel could lead to lots of people losing their jobs.  It all boils down to noble-hearted George and gruff, greedy Dad.  All that boring business stuff isn’t as important as romance, which is why we watch George fall into a love triangle with Lisa and Matty instead of, you know, following through with the movie’s second major storyline.

3.  How Do You Know You’re a Wasted Character Actor Who Deserves Better?  If you’re Tony Shalhoub and Mark Linn-Baker, all you have to do is watch How Do You Know and pay close attention to your own performances.  See how natural you are, playing a psychiatrist and corporate attorney, respectively?  Notice the lack of wide-eyed, arm-flailing affectation?  Don’t you find it funny that you’re in a two-hour movie for less than five minutes?  Take that as a sign that instead of imparting solid, adult wisdom on a cast of vapid characters, America would rather see George fall down a flight of stairs or watch a beefy tough guy with a thick Brooklyn accent tearfully propose to George’s secretary, Annie (Kathryn Hahn).

If we’ve learned nothing else from two decades of these condescending chick flicks it’s that a man only show emotion for either comic effect or at the end of the movie, after he’s learned that being attentive to his girlfriend’s feelings is more important than sports and power tools.  If you ever want to work in this business again, Mark and Tony, quit acting and start grunting.

4.  How Do You Know Your Movie Career is on the Skids?  If you’re James L. Brooks and Paul Rudd, all you have to do is go against the creative instincts that made you famous.  Brooks is a legend, having brought us the weepy, Oscar-winning Terms of Endearment and Oscar-nominated Broadcast News—not to mention developing The Simpsons which, long ago, was the place to go for hilarious televised irreverence.  In recent years, his weird dramadies have become increasingly precious and unfunny.  His movies wear the skin of maturity, but they often fall back on unoriginal juvenile humor.  They also tend to center on the problems of rich white people without giving anyone a reason to care.

In How Do You Know, Lisa ignores every piece of good advice she receives; which helps pad out the run-time, but also renders her character unsympathetic and a chore to tolerate.  As screenwriter, Brooks is responsible for these problems and it’s frankly embarrassing to watch a seventy-year-old man write for a thirty-one-year-old woman.  Also, aside from a few scenes of her playing softball, we never get the sense that Lisa is an athlete; her career is as interchangeable as those of all the characters Katherine Heigl has played for the last three years.  

Paul Rudd is a worse offender than Brooks, though.  You wouldn't know it from watching I Love You Man and Dinner for Schmucks, but Rudd does his best work as the smart, snarky contrarian with a heart of gold—like his star-making role in Clueless.  But it appears he’s left all of his deviant personality behind to play the vanilla straight man in other people’s romantic comedies.

He needs to re-capture the dark magic of Role Models and quit showing up as the buttoned-down nebbish who learns how to love when a crazy free spirit enters his life; he needs to quit being the male Katherine Heigl.

5.  How Do You Know You’re The Brain-Dead Sucker This Movie Was Made For?  If you swoon loudly at the diamond-encrusted watch that Matty gives to Lisa as a “pre-engagement engagement gift”—as did a woman in my theatre—well, congratulations on having the lowest expectations of any human being alive.  I really wanted to interview this lady after the show and ask if she thought that perhaps she would be given a diamond watch for having seen the movie; if not, why on earth would someone audibly emote over a fake present given to a fictional character?

Especially when, if she’d been paying attention to the preceding hour-and-forty-five-minutes, she would’ve realized that the watch was not a good thing—was, in fact, the first step in Lisa’s becoming the trophy wife of an imbecilic womanizer.  But, hey, maybe James L. Brooks knows his audience better than I do; which is fine, ‘cause I don’t want to know that woman.

I’m being particularly harsh on How Do You Know because it’s full of actors I respect, or have respected, and I find it baffling that they would agree to appear in such dishonest gender propaganda.  Was it the paycheck?  Was it the chance to work with an industry titan?  Or, worse, did Rudd, Witherspoon, Wilson and Nicholson read the screenplay and actually think it was good? 

Whatever the case, I look forward to seeing some truly great movies in the next day or so and reporting back to you with my findings.  At this point, I’d settle for a passable film with a single major character I can identify with.  That’s how I’ll know that the stench of this movie has worn off.