DVD Review: How Do You Know (2010)

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Related Review:  
Broadcast News: Criterion Collection Blu-ray

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When it comes to the reception to James L. Brooks’ latest film, what went wrong had little to do with what Brooks did right in the creation of yet another under-appreciated minor gem – his second in a decade following the divided reaction to his previous effort Spanglish.

And while so much about this picture is so right, unfortunately far too few people know about it because everything about its overall release went wrong... so wrong in fact that even fewer people are aware of the perfect storm of misjudgment and miscalculation that lined up before the first screening commenced.

For starters, the decision to dub his beloved 1997 work As Good as it Gets was a gamble that paid off several times over in the form of repeat business, awards and accolades for master writer/director James L. Brooks.

Unfortunately for the filmmaker, history did not repeat itself in 2010 when his blandly titled How Do You Know became a box-office dud, bowing at number eight during its opening weekend before dropping off the chart completely three weeks later. Needless to say, it’s hard to remember to buy tickets for a film if you can’t remember the title.

Moreover, nothing screams “summer movie” quite like a smart, quick-witted breezy warm-weather set romantic comedy that finds Reese Witherspoon’s All-American Olympic veteran softball player torn between love with a major leaguer (Owen Wilson) and a businessman (Paul Rudd). Yet maddeningly, How Do You Know was released in the wrong season, sandwiched between serious awards contenders and franchise films hoping to score holiday cash.

Having been saddled with a bad trailer that began with the otherwise sweet-natured film's one comically vulgar Apatow-audience-friendly awkward joke uttered by a ballplayer in a bullpen, the hits to How just kept on coming.

Unfairly maligned by critics in addition to its forgettable title and blink-and-you-missed-it release in an over-crowded season, Brooks’s sophisticated and refreshingly sweet-natured film wasn’t even given the chance to become a word-of-mouth filmgoer success.

Yet fortunately thanks to a perfectly timed home entertainment release on Sony Blu-ray and DVD that coincides with the start of Spring – and likewise Spring Training for ballplayers everywhere – Brooks’s underrated sleeper-in-the-making How Do You Know has been given a second chance to make a much better first impression.

The film not only reunites the writer/director with longtime star Jack Nicholson (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as it Gets) but also finds Brooks returning to the same themes that have populated his oeuvre for decades on screens big and small from his groundbreaking work on TV’s The Mary Tyler Moore Show to his masterpiece Broadcast News and beyond.

Endlessly fascinated by the way that men and women relate to one another as well as how people communicate in general particularly through the device of a love triangle that ultimately questions the difference between what we “want” and what we “need,” Brooks balances out How’s love story with past preoccupations of family dynamics along with our fruitless struggle to keep work from spilling over into our personal lives.

An ambitious writer/director who respects his audience’s intellect, Brooks rebels against the idea that dialogue-driven humanistic “people movers” must only follow a single plot-strand and wrap up in ninety minutes by making “big” movies that emphasize real people over really expensive special effects.

Similar to the way that Jack Nicholson connected the Greg Kinnear neighbor plot in As Good as it Gets with Helen Hunt’s waitress, Brooks once again indulges his fondness for “putting two comedies under one roof” by linking together two separate storylines through an overlapping character via Reese Witherspoon’s relationships with two very different men in How.

The emphasis on Witherspoon is no accident after all as Brooks contacted the actress after seeing her Oscar winning role in Walk the Line and asked if he could write a film for her specifically.

Although initially, Paul Rudd’s energetic and at times overly animated performance as a businessman who’s been thrown an ethical, legal and life-changing curveball seems strongly influenced by Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, ultimately he wins us over along with the rest of the cast.

Through a beautiful marriage of writing and performance Rudd, Wilson and Witherspoon revel in the complexity of their evolving roles to the point that we even begin to second guess Owen Wilson’s perpetually cheerful, laid-back narcissistic jock as they reveal more layers from one act to the next.

A cinematic breath of fresh air given its respectful treatment of people both onscreen and off that never once cheapens a heartfelt moment with an emphasis on trendy scatology or illogical shortcuts, How manages that rare romantic comedy feat of making old scenes new with some inventive twists.

Thus, what went wrong in December 2010 was easily canceled out by what went right on set. From a phone call made outside the window of the man Witherspoon wanted to see (a reverse Romeo and Juliet) to a blind dinner date wherein the man and the woman make a vow not to speak, you know you’re charmed by the idea of falling in love in How Do You Know when you realize to your sheer delight that you’ve never seen anything like it before.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.