How do you know if a movie just doesn't click? In the case of 'How Do You Know,' the latest romantic heart warmer from writer-director James L. Brooks, the signs begin to pop up almost immediately. Lack of chemistry between star Reese Witherspoon and her two leading men, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, leads the list, followed by a dull story, too much soul-searching, languorous pacing that sucks the air out of the film's tires, and only a few mildly amusing lines and situations. Sure, a writer as astute and talented as Brooks makes a few pertinent points about relationships and self-esteem, a couple of which hit home and resonate, but in the end there's not enough action, not enough laughs, and not enough substance to sustain 'How Do You Know' and keep it afloat.
And that's a shame, because Brooks' films carry with them a certain degree of weight, based in part on their infrequency and track record. Over the past three decades, the director has helmed a mere half-dozen movies, but three have been nominated for Best Picture - 'Broadcast News,' 'As Good as It Gets,' and 'Terms of Endearment' - and the latter, his freshman effort, won the prize. That sets a standard that's tough to live up to, but Brooks has often succeeded in delivering a quality product. What makes his good films so good is depth of character and introspection coupled with an involving story and smart dialogue, but 'How Do You Know' finds Brooks laboring to put forth those elements. It's almost as if he's trying to follow a formula, but doesn't have the right ingredients on hand to make it work.
Lisa (Witherspoon) is a perky Olympic softball player who finds herself at a crossroads when she's abruptly cut from her team. Stuck in a push-pull relationship with the libidinous Matty (Wilson), a dim-witted major league pitcher who seems to revel in his immaturity, she decides to test the waters with someone far removed from the athletic arena. George (Rudd) is an uptight, by-the-books businessman searching for love but blindsided by a federal fraud investigation that threatens to ruin his career and possibly send him to jail. He begins a tentative romance with the confused Lisa (who continually gravitates back to Matty) while trying to iron out issues with his magnate father (Jack Nicholson), whom he discovers is more involved in his legal problems than he originally believed.
Witherspoon brings her branded cuteness to Lisa, but remains natural. The deer-in-the-headlights expression she adopts on the disc's cover art is a look we see often during the course of the film, and her quiet indecision somewhat drags down the movie's energy level. Wilson also spends much of the time looking like his photo, overcompensating for Witherspoon's restraint with a too-goofy portrayal, and his stereotypical dumb jock character makes it easy to determine who Lisa will choose in the last reel. Rudd plays the straight man much of the time, but comes off rather bland. I'm a huge fan of the actor and glad he's finally getting lead roles in films, but this one doesn't maximize his droll comedic capabilities. Brooks has done well by Nicholson in the past, directing him to Oscars in 'Terms of Endearment' and 'As Good as It Gets,' but he lets the actor down here with a sketchily drawn, cartoonish role that Nicholson struggles to grasp and ends up turning into another Jack caricature.
'How Do You Know' tries to make meaningful statements about relationships, romance, and finding "the one," but it drags on way too long, padded by rambling dialogue scenes and subplots that seem constructed around vague ideas or clever lines that don't merit such involvement. It's also predictable, a bit saccharine, and strangely inert. Smart romantic comedies are a rarity these days, but this one only seems wise on the surface. If you're craving a brighter bit of Brooks on Blu, check out the recently released 'Broadcast News' instead. How do I know that's a better option? It's simply a no-brainer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'How Do You Know' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and primary audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. An English Audio Description Track is also included for the visually impaired. Upon insertion of the disc, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'How Do You Know' features a good but far from spectacular 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's pleasant enough to look at, but never eye-popping. The pristine source material exudes a cozy warmth, yet often seems a bit dark. Black levels are solid, but occasional instances of crush drown out details, while an orangey cast often shades the image, affecting fleshtones, which lean toward the bronzy side.
Contrast is well pitched, and faint grain contributes to a film-like appearance. Colors are strong, with vibrant reds dominating. Witherspoon's dress and the accents on the Nationals' uniforms are nicely saturated, and greens and blues look lush and natural. Close-ups show off facial details well, and background elements always look clear. Banding, noise, and edge enhancement are all absent, making this a smooth, fluid view for all.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track pumps out clear, dynamic sound, but the film doesn't offer any showy moments. Surround activity is practically nonexistent; even Hans Zimmer's score never fills the room like we expect. Almost all the sound is front-based, with mild stereo separation widening the field somewhat. Ambient effects are subtle, too, but details are distinct enough to add some spice to the track. Dialogue, of course, is the A-1 priority here, and it's always well prioritized and easy to understand. There's also no bass to speak of whatsoever. All in all, this is a fine audio presentation with no technical deficiencies; there's just not much substance to make it sing.
Plenty of extras are included for those who really want to get under the skin of this release. Like the film, substance comes at a premium, but fans will enjoy what's here.
James L. Brooks has directed some funny, appealing, emotional, and perceptive films, but sadly, the anemic 'How Do You Know' isn't one of them. This rambling, passionless romantic comedy is only mildly amusing and intermittently warm, and though the talented cast tries its best, the actors fail to infuse the movie with the energy and chemistry it craves. Even good video and audio and a slew of supplements can't heighten my enthusiasm for this lackluster misfire.