Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Know (when a filmmaker's lost)

(Ye be spoilers ahead, if you must know...)

I wanted to root for How Do You Know going in.  With all of the negative buzz, that it was a misguided and dumb-headed and, maybe the most accurate word I could surmise 'dopey', romantic comedy without the right shine of romance or the good shot of comedy for a James L. (As Good as It Gets, Broadcast News) Brooks film, I still didn't want to shoot it down too fast.  The cast looked promising: with Reese Witherspoon, adorable-as-a-button as ever in her first live-action feature in a while, Paul Rudd in another good-guy role, Owen Wilson in another (sorry to use again) dopey shaggy-haired would-be surfer-dude, Jack Nicholson as... Jack, I could figure.

And Paul Rudd will make the drinks!  I loved him in Halloween 6!
And hey, Janusz Kaminski doing the cinematography!  And it looked to be a cute love-trio set-up with people a little mixed-up in their lives.  What could go wrong?  Simple to put it, Brooks has lost his way as a storyteller, and writer of dialog.  The voice is there but it's off-key, like a musician who is trying to recreate old rhythms and ending up with a bad pot of stew.

It might be mostly on his end that the movie has fault.  It's not at all a bad thing for a writer in a romantic-comedy genre to have characters who are a bit mixed up in their lives; in this case it's a 30 year old Lisa (Witherspoon) who has just been dumped by her team, in a tenuous if amicable relationship with a self-absorbed (also) ball player, Matty (Wilson), but also courted almost by accident by a fellow in-trouble person, this being a corporate white-collar guy George (Rudd) with a much-more corrupt and blustering corporate father (Nicholson).  So Brooks has his pieces set, and the set-up could make for something that involves us these characters who have brains and possibly know how to use them... maybe.

Indeed having Nicholson in a supporting role might not be an accident; perhaps Brooks might look at him as his wild card as he's been in Terms of Endearment and smaller role in Broadcast News (the latter of which this film might hearken back to is tale of two guys and a lady, one super-cocky but nice, another a little more goofy and sincere, and the girl neurotic and not totally sure of herself).  Suffice to say, before I get to other aspects of the film, Nicholson is mis-used here.

(on phone with agent): Wait, that script?  What is this crap... oh... two Oscars, right, right.

I won't quite say mis-cast as I could see why Brooks would want him, but it's a kind of thankless role, a corporate creep who acts like Rudd's character's only-friend-in-the-world when it comes to this FBI investigation into his affairs (of which we are kept completely out of the loop, maybe for the best as it doesn't seem like Brooks knows it outside of a plot/character device).  Usually there's something likable in Nicholson's devilish ways (hence the eyebrows).  But here he just blusters and uses the same one tone and hand gesture and with a few moments of exception isn't very funny.  I don't know whether it's him or the script, but for the several minutes he's in the film, it's a let-down.

But then, so is a lot of the rest of the film.  Where is the heart here?  And, on top of that, where is the logic?  This isn't meant to be presented like one of those intolerable 'rom-coms' that we get force-fed in the studio mill in the early part of the year, say, with Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez or another Jennifer I might be forgetting.  Brooks wants us to like these guys and gal, or at least see them as human.  We might see their faults, but when we're meant to look at them more realistically then we would in, say, an Aniston vehicle or one of those intolerably unlikable movies like, uh, (what came out this year I'd rather forget), Leap Year.  And yet the characters don't act in ways that would endear us to them, or would make us want to see their faults early on and maybe see how they grow and progress.

"One thing we can agree on: You, Me & Dupree was a mistake." "Wait, you were in that?"  
The characters start out a certain way and pretty much end up the same as they came at the start, only with some minor revelations with Matty being revealed to be a slightly bigger jerk than we thought of him before (not a total jerk, just enough to have to move on to the more obvious choice).  So what comes of it?  It's just... dull, really.  I didn't care about a lot of these people as one- Lisa- brings along two guys thinking they could be in for the long-term, maybe, hopefully- and another, George, is the kind of super-nice-guy who is almost painfully nice.  And why are they attracted to her?  I dunno, she's the star, I guess.  And why she to them?  At least George seems like he could be fun after a while, or under a few drinks.  With Matty it seems more like convenience, or another part of his life that is set and not too unmovable (it would almost be charming how clueless Matty really is, such as saying "this is my apartment" after asking, pleading for Lisa to move in).

And sure, there are some one-liners that do connect (at one point Rudd calls Nicholson a 'something-something' after a big revelation that brought the house-down as they say).  Others in the cast are left more with their arms flailing in the wind for their brief moments like Kathryn Hahn as George's very pregnant underling (and you know, such wacky things happen with hormones!) and an oddly moving scene between her character and her estranged significant other in a hospital room.

The script just feels confused, and maybe Brooks as well, like he thought he had enough time with the material but didn't put it through another draft, or two, or ten maybe.  One might think the cast themselves would be enough to care for the characters, but it really isn't.  You need good dynamics, good relationships, reasons that there could be change and stuff to care.  One saw this in spades, with real affecting heart and spirit, in Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, which also happened to have the grace of being about other things than just the character-relationships.  Here it's just... kind of lumpy.

Wait... I lost my mantra.  
I should also add, since I mentioned it earlier in this review, of Janusz Kaminsi's cinematography.  That... is not really worth going too deep into here, except to say it's very workmanlike and glossy and shiny, and could be mistaken for someone else's work entirely - such as, well, any other hack DP working in the business (that there are some shots that seem oddly framed could be put more on Brooks end than Kaminski, however he is the buffer here stylistically).  Without much reason to care overall, How Do You Know loses its way not all at once; the initial promise, and indeed almost self-homage to Broadcast News' opening with the children in their early form before becoming adults, could speak to something better, but where that grew out with intelligence, this just... I don't know.

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