When most romantic comedies are written according to a basic formula, when dialogue is scarcely authentic and believable, we have come to rely on James L. Brooks to deliver affecting and very real stories of romance. From Terms of Endearment to As Good As It Gets, he has never quite allowed his films to fit to some sort of standard. And while the same can be said of his newest film, How Do You Know (specifically, that you’re in love), his characters slip into caricature due to some disconnect between creator and creation. It has its moments of poignance and brilliance, it even has scenes that all romantic comedies should aspire to have, and yet somehow the characters never seem quite as real as they should. James L. Brooks, it seems, is slipping.
The two main characters, the ones destined to be together, are played by Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon. Both are facing huge life crises when they have their first date: his company, and by extension he, is being federally investigated for stock fraud, while she, a two-time Olympian and asset to the National Softball team, has been cut altogether. They meet at a nice restaurant, both beset with their problems, and after some bad first impressions decide to eat in silence. They vow to not speak until they leave the restaurant. He falls head over heels for her during this date, and tries to solicit a second, but she is in a relationship right now, and doesn’t think it’ll happen.
That relationship is with Owen Wilson’s character, who seems like some fusion of his characters from Bottle Rocket and Wedding Crashers, he speaks in hyperbole, always with enthusiasm, and lives a bohemian lifestyle that he embraces, until he and Reese start going steady. He has also fallen for her, and asks himself the titular question before coming to a conclusion and inviting her to live with him. He is in love with her, and he knows it. By her reaction, she could very well be in love with him, especially at that moment.
By chance or fate, Paul’s office is located in the same building as Owen’s penthouse, and he runs into Reese one day, only to help along these feelings he has for her. He enters the friend zone smoothly, but only because he is so enamored, and helps her through some stuff she has to deal with, but can’t share with Owen. They get drunk, hang out, but he never takes advantage of the situation; he appears to be truly smitten.
SPOILERS, SKIP PARAGRAPHS
All the while, we learn more and more about Paul’s rough relationship with his father, who is actually the person responsible for the stock fraud, and who wants Paul to take the fall. His father, played by Jack Nicholson, says that as it will be a second offense, his time in jail will be enormous by comparison to his son’s, which is a mere three years. Paul decides that if he cannot win over Reese Witherspoon in the climactic scene, then he has nothing to live for (he says it with less melodrama) and is willing to do the time. If, however, he has the slightest chance to be happy right now, with her, then he would be denying himself one of the truly great experiences that he could ever have, and it would be a disservice to life itself to take his father’s place.
(This question leads to the one truly great moment for Jack Nicholson in the film. He watches over his balcony as his son is waiting dejected in the street, with a look of actual fatherly concern, and when Reese rushes outside to embrace him, Nicholson’s face lights up, for a moment forgetting that his son’s happiness means his own misery. For the moment it is all worth it.)
This all sounds great, right? How can I walk away saying that Brooks has lost his touch? The problem is that it is impossible to relate to the characters throughout the film. They have their moments of piercing clarity, of innovative beauty, but it is never sustained. Part of this is due to Brooks becoming a bit jaded over the years.
In his wonderful film As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character is tangible and real, perhaps because Brooks is channeling his own feelings and emotions into Melvin. In this film, there is no surrogate, and the characters are written and acted as if their love is a kind of folly, which it may be, with a tone of elderly disapproval. Paul Rudd’s constant ability to listen comes off overly goofy, while Reese’s very real and relatable qualms over notions of romance seem over wrought. Owen Wilson plays another character in extreme, the athlete player, who sleeps with so many women he has a drawer full of spare toothbrushes.
It is as if these characters are cartoonish, beyond the real, but not so far as to warrant laughter. We don’t find them funny, and the lines that connect the wonderful dots are blurry and ill-focused. And yet, there is something unwaveringly true about the film’s contradictions. Yes, it is difficult to know you’re actually in love as opposed to silly in love. Or perhaps, it’s the opposite, that love can exist in a grand fairy tale sense, but more frequently it is a beautiful relationship with another person, entirely separate and unique from everyone else’s experience. It is something intimate and personal, and something you know in your gut, not your mind. These ideas are all in the film, which gesture towards impressions of a greater film, one that this aspires towards, but never quite reaches.
– Ben Creech