In “How Do You Know” screenwriter/director James L. Brooks explores some of the same ground that he had in “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good as It Gets“ although not with quite the same success. As in the earlier films, Brooks uses Jack Nicholson in a key, if much smaller, role, and the diminishment of Nicholson’s role parallels the current film’s lesser impact. Still, this one has its appeal. Whoda thunk that things would perk up when Nicholson left the screen to be replaced by — Owen Wilson?
But that’s the case. Wilson, known mostly for his work in some pretty cheesy movies, may have found exactly the right role for him here, and he plays it to a fare thee well. He is Matty, a star relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals and a world class womanizer and narcissist. When he gets together with Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a world class softball player, he thinks that he may have found the girl of his dreams. But Lisa has just been cut from the American team — she’s 31 and too slow — and she needs a bit more in a man than the rich man-child Matty.
So when she agrees to move into his luxury apartment with him, we know that the arrangement isn’t likely to last. But the unlikely rival for affections is George (Paul Rudd), an investment guy who has just been accused by the government of stock fraud. Because he can’t talk with anybody in his firm — including his own father (Nicholson) — George is effectively set adrift, with the very real prospect of doing some jail time for a crime he didn’t commit. Only his very pregnant secretary (Kathryn Hahn) sticks with him, intimating that she knows who the real culprit is.
After an unpromising start, his relationship with Lisa blossoms into friendship, in some part because he does not attempt to control or manipulate her as Matty does. That, and the fact that he doesn’t have a stack of women’s sweatshirts to hand out to stayovers or a drawer full of new toothbrushes for the morning after. Matty’s bumbling attempts to excuse himself work on Lisa, for a time. After all, the sex is great and he’s just plain fun to hang out with, being a fellow jock and generous, after a fashion. The two of them can trade motivational slogans, though not much of substance.
The exchanges between the two lovers are easily the film’s biggest attraction. Brooks writes some wonderfully funny dialogue: Wilson’s doofus delivery and Witherspoon’s nonplussed responses continually amuse. The scenes she shares with Rudd and his father/son exchanges with Nicholson slow down the comic pace, though they do give the movie some depth.
“How Do You Know” is rated “PG-13” for language and some sexuality. It’s a pleasant, if flawed, diversion from the cold and snow, and Wilson alone is worth the price of admission.