The problem with making a romantic comedy as good as Broadcast News is that, even after your career continues for another 20 years, every movie you make will be compared, probably unfavorably, to Broadcast News. Writer-director James L. Brooks has never topped his 1987 classic, and he hasn't done it with How Do You Know, a perfectly enjoyable if flabby romantic comedy that's still more mature, thoughtful and sincere than most of what passes in the genre lately. Anchored by a magnificently appealing Paul Rudd and the ever-likable Reese Witherspoon, How Do You Know gets by on witty and realistic dialogue even when its story is sloppy. It's pleasant diversion that's best enjoyed when not held up against the better film it could have been, or even the better ones Brooks has made before.
Shot on the shiny, beautifully lit streets and soundstages of Washington D.C. (and Philadelphia filling in occasionally), How Do You Know is another movie about wealthy white people and their problems, though there's a neat twist in making Witherspoon's character Lisa an Olympic-level softball player forced into young retirement. Despondent and aimless, she takes up with empty-headed baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), with whom she can talk shop and have sex and not think too much about the fact that she has no idea what the next step should be. Meanwhile she's also being courted, quite sexlessly and ineffectively, by George (Paul Rudd), a corporate suit type who gets dumped the same day he finds out he's being investigated for some vague kind of fraud committed by his dad (Jack Nicholson).
Rather than construct a real plot-- he has absolutely no interest in the corporate investigation thing, and neither do the characters-- Brooks just sets up his love triangle and shouts "Action!" It works better than it ought to, partly because all three leads bounce off each other well, augmented by the scene-stealing Kathryn Hahn as George's loving, pregnant, somewhat batty secretary. Lisa goes on a date with George then moves in with Matty, then moves out from Matty's and goes to George's to charge her cell phone, then gets back together with Matty but spends her birthday party chatting with George on the roof. She's indecisive and somewhat childish, sure, but Witherspoon pulls off playing Lisa as an emotionally stunted jock, over the hill at 31 and clueless about pretty much everyone's feelings, including her own.
The herky-jerky nature of the story means that the individual scenes hit or miss on their own weight rather than build on each other, and you go from Rudd's very funny slapstick to a hammy and utterly worthless Nicholson in a way that halts any momentum the movie might have built. But then Brooks writes himself up to something really touching like the hospital room scene when Hahn's character eventually gives birth, or Witherspoon and Rudd waiting for a bus, each unwilling or too unaware to say what needs saying. The little flashes of brilliance keep How Do You Know from collapsing under its own excess, but they also suggest the frustrating prospect of something better. How can a writer smart enough to write the extended courtship scene between George and Lisa also not realize the Nicholson character is totally superfluous?
These are dark times for the romantic comedy, and it's disappointing to finally acknowledge that Brooks may not be able to swoop in and save us with something on the level of his earlier masterpieces. But How Do You Know, for all its flat moments, is far better than what we've been accepting in recent years, and its lack of plot allows for us to spend more time with the characters who, while a little underwritten, each shine individually thanks to the actors playing them. Rom-coms teach us to hold out for the perfect person and accept nothing less, but in this case settling for How Do You Know is probably the best we can do for now.