Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good As It Gets, once considered one of our most respected filmmakers, now known as the man who takes a very long time to deliver films of steadily-decreasing critical and box office returns. His latest film, How Do You Know (no need for the question mark, apparently) was six years in the making; its predecessor, Spanglish, took seven. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who considers Brooks a filmmaker in his prime, or one whose pictures are benefiting from their lengthy gestation periods.
That said, the scathing critical notices for How Do You Know seem to have less to do with what is on the screen than what is not—the picture arrived under a cloud of bad publicity, not just due to Brooks’s slow-motion production style, but its massive $120 million budget. Suffice it to say, it does not look like a $120 million picture ($50 mill of that was solely salaries for Brooks and the four key cast members), or the result of six years’ labor. It is not a great film. But it is also not a terrible one, and many of its failures are, in their own way, rather honorable.
Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa, an Olympic softball player who has just crossed the 30-year-old line and (not coincidentally) been cut from her team. She’s casually dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a rich professional baseball star, but it might turn into something more serious. One of her teammates tries to set her up with George (Paul Rudd), an executive, but he’s seeing someone as well. However, that relationship hits the skids when George finds out he’s under a mysterious federal investigation. “I will be there for you… at the end,” his girlfriend informs him. George, who is a bit of a mess by now, decides to ask out Lisa, who has just found out that she’s not on next year’s team.
So Brooks has packed up the ingredients for the worst first date imaginable, puts the pair at the table, and lets them go. It’s a pretty good scene. So is a later encounter, which finds the pair staying up late and drinking together (“I used to be a bartender,” George tells Lisa, “back when I was working my way through bartending”) during a brief break-up with Matty. And Brooks deserves credit for attempting to give the expected romantic conflict some complexity: Lisa is a bit of a mess, George is far from perfect, and Matty, though insensitive and not too bright, isn’t made an easy villain (he sees his closet full of women’s clothes and drawer full of toothbrushes not as telltale signs of promiscuity, but as considerate and “classy” moves). It’s a serviceable triangle, even if its broad strokes are basically the same as those of Broadcast News (from which Brooks also swipes his prologue).
But there’s no disputing the movie’s flaws. It’s an incredibly static picture; the scenes are played with their feet nailed down, long sequences of sometimes flat conversation and endless telephone dialogue, and in spite of the involvement of Spielberg’s regular photographer Janusz Kaminski, there’s not much about them that’s terribly cinematic (when he tries to experiment, like at the end of Rudd’s big closing speech, he mostly just calls attention to himself). In spite of the long and expensive production, the editing is often awkward and patchy; an early scene’s cutaways to Rudd’s funny assistant (Kathryn Hahn) have the subtlety of a ballpeen hammer to the forehead. And the director’s sense of pace is just deadly; the second hour (it runs a full, too-bulky 121 minutes) drags badly, with cue pickups slow enough to drive a truck through. Most of the performances are good—Witherspoon is especially believable, and Rudd is likable even when Brooks leans too heavily on his considerable offhanded charm—but Jack Nicholson, as Rudd’s grumpy father, is clearly phoning this one in. He isn’t given much of a character to play, and doesn’t bother creating one; his character feels somewhat unnecessary, one of many sidebars that a more disciplined filmmaker would have fine-tuned or eliminated altogether. And that’s perhaps the problem: in its length, its budget, and its shambling narrative, How Do You Know feels like the work of an indulgent, insulated filmmaker. He’s made great movies before; what’s not as clear is whether he still can.
How Do You Know may not be a success, but in a larger sense, director James L. Brooks’s failures are honorable; in all of his films, he attempts to give his characters some rough edges, some complications that aren’t arbitrary, manufactured bullshit. In As Good As It Gets, Nicholson’s disorders and darkness were taken seriously, creating a reality that was somewhat uncomfortably at odds with its too-sunny ending. In Spanglish, the actions of the Sandler character could have been made easy by writing Tea Leoni’s wife as a one-dimensional shrew; if her character was ultimately muddled and impossible to read, she was at least interesting. Here, a love triangle that would have been cartoonishly simple in the average Katherine Heigl rom-com gets to be a little prickly, a little difficult, and a consequently a little more satisfying. That doesn’t make it a great movie. But it’s something.
"How Do You Know" debuts today on DVD and Blu-ray. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.