It's always a bad idea for filmmakers to title their films with a question. It leaves them open to smart-ass film critics who then use that same question against them while writing their reviews. Of course, if the film were good, this wouldn't be a problem.
James L. Brooks, the once great writer – director of such films as "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News", is not the most prolific filmmaker; he has only made three films in thirteen years. Of these films, only one can be considered good. So when he makes a bad film, it really sticks out. You have to ask yourself "this piece of crap was made by the same person who made "Terms of Endearment" and "As Good As It Gets"?" Very soon, our first statement about his films might be "Aah, another film from the guy who made "I'll Do Anything", "Spanglish" and …"
"How Do You Know" (Okay. Technically, not a question, but close enough) is the newest film starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson. Written and directed by Brooks, it is a phenomenally bad film and an incredible waste of talent.
How do you know a promising actress has made a bad mistake? Witherspoon plays Lisa, a member of the USA Softball Team who gets cut. At 31, this throws her into a tailspin and she begins to reevaluate her life. As a member of the team, she states she is going to stop dating professional athletes. As soon as she is cut, she jumps into bed with Matty (Wilson), a professional baseball player and full-time lothario. Because Lisa knows Matty is a player, and still enters into a relationship with him, she seems desperate and needy completely contradicting the strong, independent image she is meant to convey. Worse, after her initial "encounter" with Matty, she quickly learns the truth about him. Instead of walking out, never to return, she justifies his behavior by returning to him. Of course, if she walked out on him, there would be no reason to watch the movie. On second thought, maybe that isn't such a bad thing.
How do you know you should stay away from a movie? If Owen Wilson is one of the stars, it’s a pretty safe bet. Has this guy made any good films recently? In the last five years? Sure, he was memorable in "Meet the Parents", but that was a small role. His last memorable (good?) starring role was "Wedding Crashers" in 2005. Before that, "Minus Man" in 1999. Everything else has been dreadful, a supporting role or a voice in a cartoon ("Cars"). Wilson does the same shtick in every role and it wears thin very quickly. It becomes almost impossible to sit and watch him.
How do you know a film is in trouble? When Paul Rudd begins to flounder around trying to create some desperately needed laughs. To be honest, Rudd basically does the same shtick in just about every film as well. But he has a better track record and his work seems lighter and funnier. Rudd plays George, a commodities broker (?) who works for his dad, Charles (Jack Nicholson). As the film begins, George is subpoenaed and may be indicted for financial shenanigans. This causes him to become rudderless and desperate. During all of this, he contacts Lisa and asks her on a blind date. The date doesn't go well, he is a little preoccupied, so he flounders around a bit and tries to figure out what is going wrong with his life. Naturally, this is when he decides a new relationship is just the ticket. As if his life weren't stressful enough. There is a certain amount of "movie-cute" in his character, but he is also significantly overwrought. And because we never understand what his character is accused of doing (despite the lengthy narrative - halting explanations to try and enlighten us) it is difficult to follow along or muster any sympathy.
How do you know a great actor is bored? When Jack Nicholson takes on the thankless, unfunny, uninteresting role of Charles, George's dad. The most remarkable thing about this character is that Nicholson plays him. Throughout the film, Charles makes an appearance, has a discussion with his son, mugs for the camera and leaves. It is jaw dropping, but in the wrong way.
How do you know a film just isn't going to work on any level? Some of the people, any of the people, who read the script before production began should've pointed out to Brooks' that none of the characters are likable. That is a big problem in a romantic comedy. Lisa just seems weak and pathetic making it difficult to get behind her character, to root for her. Matty isn't supposed to be likable and we get that from the beginning. So why does Lisa fall for him? George is supposed to be the hero, but he is so distraught and anxious throughout, it is difficult to stand watching him. I think it would be hard for anyone to say "Let's invite George to dinner. He would be a great addition to the conversation". We can't stand George, or anyone else, so it is difficult to like anyone.
How do you know "How Do You Know" is a dreadful film to be avoided at all costs? As you watch the film, time seems to slow down; the movie eventually feels longer than it actually is. And that is never a good thing.