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How Do You Know

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An odd duck of a romantic comedy, How Do You Know strays far from a barrel of laughs. The movie's rhythms are loose, disjointed and peppered with strategic silences or half-finished thoughts, and the punch lines are few. There's not much mugging for the camera, other than from Jack Nicholson, hamming away as a triumphantly errant parent. But writer-director James L. Brooks doesn't lose his grip altogether. And with Janusz Kaminski onboard as cinematographer, How Do You Know actually looks like a rainy but inviting downtown Washington, D.C. — exactly what it's supposed to look like.

Even with Reese Witherspoon upfront in fetchingly scanty frocks, choosing between her sweetly clueless baseball-star squeeze (Owen Wilson) and George (Paul Rudd), a straight-arrow businessman upended by a federal investigation, How Do You Know faces uncertain prospects at the box office. But this strange, brave little film deserves to be sent out to sea in a bottle so that future generations may take the measure of just how hair-raisingly indeterminate it was to live and love in early 21st-century America.

In that sense, How Do You Know is the latest memo from a fitfully pungent social commentary that Brooks began in the early 1970s with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoffs, referenced in his new film by an unmarried mother who reassures her father after she gives birth, "Dad, just remember there are a lot of TV shows with single-mom heroines." Set adrift in a world fragmented by divorce and collapsing families and stripped of social markers, Mary, Rhoda, et al. found emotional solace at work. Brooks is a master of warmly dysfunctional workplace humor — Albert Brooks' sweating scene in Broadcast News is one of the great moments in the comedy of embarrassment and humiliation. But in How Do You Know, even work, that bulwark against the howling uncertainty of a heartless world, is gone.

It's no accident that Lisa (Witherspoon) and George meet at the precise moment that their professional lives go into free fall. At 31, Lisa has been cut loose from her beloved women's pro sports team, while George, an all-around nice guy, finds himself the target of an investigation for what may be shady business deals carried out by his father, a bullying rascal in the classic Nicholson mold. Lisa is so floored by adversity that she shushes George on their blind date just as he launches into a blow-by-blow account of his woes, and they finish their meal in one of the many silences and incomplete sentences that follow as they grope toward, and shy away from, a connection worth having.

Not that How Do You Know doesn't have its moments of shamelessly entertaining shtick, much of it furnished by Nicholson. Despite the shtick and the ad campaign that's trying to market the film as a standard love-triangle rom-com, it is one productively shapeless movie whose only real villains are those who use language to dissemble. The good guys are bewildered, rendered speechless by trying to say what they mean when they're radically unsure of what that is, and to whom they should say it, and how.

In one of many terrific ancillary turns, a therapist (played the great Tony Shalhoub) tells Lisa, "Figure out what you want, and find out how to ask for it." Before it wraps up, How Do You Know takes an unexpectedly candid detour through how incredibly hard it has become just to follow that directive.

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