'How Do You Know': Big-Screen Sitcom
by Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Comedy is so [expletive deleted] subjective," the writer-director (of comedies, mostly) Kevin Smith once observed. And while the observation does skew to the obvious side of things, it's an extremely valid one. But for all that, there are some things that ought to be a sure thing as far as eliciting laughs is concerned. And many, if not most of you, would think that the sight of Paul Rudd pretending to be drunk and singing a sincerely, practically classically cheesy R&B song into a lamp, might in fact be one of those sure things.
Except that when the undeniably talented and undeniably funny Rudd does this very thing in "How Do You Know," a new comedy written and directed by the acclaimed and multiple-award-winning television and film creative force James L. Brooks, there was little laughter from me, or from almost anyone else in the audience of the screening I attended. Which of course got me to wondering: Why isn't this funny? Because it should be funny. This scene happens relatively early in the film, after Rudd's character, George, a big wheel at a high-powered financial concern overseen by his domineering, manipulative father, finds out he's under federal investigation and decides to cope with it, for that evening at least, by getting drunk. And singing into that lamp. And calling, again, the young woman he called a few days prior to cancel a date he never made with her. Because that's the kind of weirdly anal guy he was when he wasn't drinking to handle a crisis. The woman in question is Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a baseball player by trade who's going through a crucible of her own upon finding out she's been cut from the pro team that she's made her life. In the wake of her unasked-for rejection by George, she's taken up with a mega-rich major-league pitcher named Matty (Owen Wilson) who's cloddish and insensitive, not in a macho lug way, but more like in the way of an attention-span-challenged bounding puppy with a strong tail that's knocking everything over all the time. And who lives in a megalithic D.C. apartment that's in the same building as the megalithic apartment of George's father, who is incidentally played by Jack Nicholson, who's been something of a near-constant presence in the films of Brooks (this is the fourth of six Brooks directorial efforts in which he's appeared; naturally you remember him in "As Good as It Gets," not to mention "Broadcast News" and "Terms of Endearment.")
All these characters have their quirks, and quirky observations, and as they spin their wheels, romantically and otherwise, minor characters on the periphery provide differing perspectives and "wisdom." A shrink played by Tony Shalhoub tells Lisa, " Find out what you want ... and learn how to ask for it." Well. By this point in the screening, I wanted to be watching an old Bob Hope movie, but I also knew that it would be very rude of me to text or call my editor in order to get permission to just bag reviewing this thing, so I stayed.
Which brings us back to the question that came to me when I didn't laugh at Rudd singing Teddy Pendergrass' "Turn Off the Lights": Why isn't this funny? It's not as if the writing is significantly worse than it's been in recent Brooks efforts such as "Spanglish" and the aforementioned "As Good as It Gets." Perhaps a bit more generally "on the nose," as they say, but not entirely disgracefully so. Then there's the fact that the film is directed in a way that seems a trifle theatrical, or even sitcom-ish: There's one sidewalk scene in which Nicholson literally looks to be entering from some form of stage right, and there are more such infelicities.
Then there's the overstuffing of the comedic piñata, as it were, with gratuitous and not particularly engaging bits of business involving pregnant secretaries and jovial doormen. None of which seems enough to sink the film. Except, at a certain point, the picture stopped being curiously unengaging and started being actively bad. Around a scene in which a new mom gets a marriage proposal from her baby daddy, which is supposed to, among other things, demonstrate the wisdom of the uncultivated, the twist being that -- well, to reveal that twist would be something of an emotional spoiler in the event that the film is actually working for you. But that's where it stopped working for me and became this big, shiny, unreal and rather irritating thing, despite Witherspoon being all perky and Wilson being all goofy and Nicholson being all gruff and Rudd being Rudd. I sincerely hope that if you do decide to spend your entertainment dollar on "How Do You Know" that things will turn out differently for you. And there is a chance, what with comedy being so [expletive deleted] subjective and all.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.