After weeks of neglect, I finally caught James L. Brooks' How Do You Know at Danbarry Western Hills last week. (You know I was keen to catch it if I endured Danbarry WH, a second-run/rate movie house that hasn't been refurbished since its opening more than a decade ago). Released amid the crowded, late-December awards season, Brooks' latest fell off my radar in part due to its lame title and acutely glossy trailer, which played up the ever-distracting presence of Jack Nicholson as much as whatever unique qualities it might offer.
It seems the public at large felt the same way: Despite an A-list cast, a writer/director with multiple Oscar nominations on his resume and a fairly significant push from Sony/Columbia, How Do You Know fell flat at the box office, pulling in only $30 million (on a reported budget of $120 million) before crawling out of first-run theaters in late January. And its middling critical response (a Metacritic score of 46, and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 30 percent) certainly didn't help.
All of which is too bad given that How Do You Know is actually one of the better romantic comedies in recent memory. I freely admit that I've been far from comprehensive in my rom-com viewing habits (one can only endure so many Jennifer Aniston/Katherine Heigl bombs), and that the genre’s bar isn't very high right about now, but I'll be damned if I can't get this thing out of my head.
I suspected as much might be possible — I was one of the few who enjoyed Brooks' last film, the widely dismissed Spanglish, which, among other achievements, features Adam Sandler's best-ever screen performance (again, I know the bar is low) and the singular visage that is Paz Vega. Like Spanglish, How Do You Know is set in its own slightly heightened, easily maligned universe — in this case a place where Reese Witherspoon can be a world-class softball player, Owen Wilson an empty-headed major league baseball pitcher and Paul Rudd a scandal-wracked but entirely good-hearted business bigwig. Sweet-natured yet never sappy, How Do You Know centers on a love triangle shot through with a touch of Lubitsch — which is to say that even when it's internal logic fails, it's emotions feel genuine. Then there's Janusz Kaminski's cinematography, which presents the proceedings as if lathered in an idealized, dreamy glaze.
Brooks' increasingly affluent characters and settings mirror his own ascent to the top of the Hollywood food chain — from the strivers of Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News to the insiders of I'll Do Anything and As Good As It Gets, the latter two being his least successful films for vastly different reasons. Brooks writes what he knows, and does so with insight, nuance, humor and an unblinking earnestness that's all but extinct in contemporary studio films.
Yet, with How Do You Know firmly in the box-office bomb category, one wonders how many more times Brooks will be given the chance to do his thing.
How Do You Know closes at Danbarry Western Hills after Thursday's screenings. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 22.