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How Do You Know DVD Review

How Do You Know 2010) movie poster How Do You Know

Theatrical Release: December 17, 2010 / Running Time: 121 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: James L. Brooks / Songs List

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Lisa Jorgenson), Paul Rudd (George Madison), Owen Wilson (Matty Reynolds), Jack Nicholson (Charles Madison), Kathryn Hahn (Annie), Mark-Linn Baker (Ron), Lenny Venito (Al), Molly Price (Coach Sally), Ron McLarty (George's Lawyer), Shelley Conn (Terry), Domenick Lombardozzi (Bullpen Pitcher), John Tormey (Doorman), Teyonah Parris (Riva), Tony Shalhoub (Psychiatrist), Dean Norris (Softball Coach)

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Unusual weight is placed on every project of a writer/director who works sparingly by choice. James L. Brooks is certainly such a filmmaker, having directed just six movies in the thirty years since he transitioned from television writing and producing. His first, 1983's Terms of Endearment,
won him Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Two of his next three (1987's Broadcast News and 1997's As Good As It Gets) also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Screenplay. In the thirteen years since, Brooks has not seen his filmography grow much, producing a Penny Marshall/Drew Barrymore movie, contributing to the 2007 big screen outing of "The Simpsons" (which he continues to oversee, some 20 years in), and writing/directing/producing Spanglish, one of Adam Sandler's occasional forays outside of his lucrative comfort zone.

How Do You Know, Brooks' sixth and latest film as writer/director, will go down not as a resounding return to form but as one of the biggest flops in cinema's history. That reputation is deserved and I'll come back to it, but from an artistic standpoint, this romantic comedy is not the failure that such an achievement and the critical consensus that preceded it suggest.

Freshly-cut Team USA softball player Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon) tries to put on a happy face through a disastrously-timed first date in "How Do You Know." As the innocent subject of a federal investigation, Washington D.C. financial executive George Madison (Paul Rudd) must downgrade his lifestyle.

How Do You Know centers on a love triangle formed around Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon), a 31-year-old softball player unexpectedly cut from the United States' national team. With seemingly nothing else going on in her life, Lisa takes the questionable step of moving in with Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson), a star Major League Baseball relief pitcher she has recently and casually begun dating. Matty is a playboy and makes no effort to hide that from the far more introspective Lisa. Completing the triangle is George Madison (Paul Rudd), a financial executive who has become the subject of a federal investigation for wrongdoing he has no knowledge whatsoever of. Advising him through this personal upheaval is his father Charles (Jack Nicholson), who has a better understanding of the corporate fraud in question and the severe consequences faced.

While love triangle films tend to make one option preferable to the other, How Do You Know really stacks the deck in one direction. With an ill-timed phone call and an iller-timed first date, George makes two terrible first impressions on Lisa.
But, even with a consequential indictment looming, he oozes decency and gallantry. Matty, on the other hand, has a bathroom full of unopened toothbrushes and morning-after clothing for women of every size in his spacious bachelor pad. He is straightforward and mildly charming, but vague on his monogamy stance and quick to sweep Lisa's emotions under the table. Is there any doubt whom Lisa will choose?

You don't enter a romantic comedy expecting to be kept guessing. At the same time, you don't expect needing two hours to arrive at a decision requiring about two minutes of thought. At least the trip is only mildly arduous. Brooks' screenplay retains his distinctive personal voice, evidently channeling experience, conversation, and research into very specific and deliberate exchanges. Unfortunately, it's the worst qualities of Brooks' past writing that are front and center. The dialogue often feels artificial and contrived, an undesirable and unlikely outcome for someone whose career has been based on turning life's lessons into witty, poignant perspective on the human experience. Many of the words coming out of the leads' mouths here ring untrue or unnatural, sadly suggesting that, at age 70, Brooks has fallen out of touch with society.

Although unconvincing delivery seems like an acting issue, we can't put too much blame on the four accomplished stars assembled here (or Kathryn Hahn, who features as a fairly important fifth). Rudd in particular acts his heart out, determined to illustrate he's not just a funny guy but a talented, classically trained performer as well. In one of her first serious credits since her Walk the Line Oscar win, Rudd's Overnight Delivery and Monsters vs. Aliens co-star Witherspoon doesn't have as comfortable a handle on her part. Lisa wavers from intelligent athlete wanting something serious to a vacuum making one bad choice after another in between flinches and grimaces.

In the most comedic part, Wilson nails his easy jokes, every one of which underscores the selfishness, immaturity, unviability of his Washington Nationals jock. Meanwhile, Nicholson, having won Oscars for his work in two prior Brooks films, feels like he's misprogrammed his autopilot feature, lacking conviction in his twitchy turn. The part was intended for Bill Murray, whose signature unresponsiveness forced recasting two weeks prior to filming. I have no doubt that Murray would have done more interesting things with the role, which clearly did not get developed as needed for a climactic decision to lean upon.

Boyish, charming Washington Nationals relief pitcher Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson) is one of two suitors forming a love triangle around Lisa. George's tycoon father (Jack Nicholson) advises him on how to proceed through federal securities fraud investigation.

The film received cool reviews from the large majority of critics. In spite of the shortcomings, they were cooler than deserved, I would say. I think expectations are a huge part of that. On a typical romantic comedy, anticipation doesn't run too high. A romantic comedy that happens to be a rare James L. Brooks movie gets more notice. When said rare movie opens in theaters one week before Christmas with a fair amount of pre-release buzz, it is expected to not only be good, but a wisely-timed serious contender for Hollywood's award season. By that criterion, How Do You Know falls short. Considered alongside modern cinema as a whole or imagined from a writer-director with a lower batting average and it's not even weak enough to be deemed a disappointment creatively.

One area in which How Do You Know must be classified as an enormous letdown is in its box office performance. Domestically, the film grossed $30 million, which isn't too bad for a romantic comedy. The problem is this seemingly small character piece had an astonishing $120 million reported production budget. Even with foreign earnings of $12 M and counting, the film is less than one-third of the way to profitability when marketing costs are considered. While timing and the nondescript title can be questioned, the biggest culprit for the bust was clearly the wildly excessive budget, which gave $50 M to Brooks and his four stars (strangely, only $3 M of which went to second lead Rudd). With the commercial power of movies for adults already in question, Brooks' track record (two hits, two flops, and one in between) should not have justified anywhere near that kind of spending.

Nevertheless, with the stink of critical and box office failure, How Do You Know comes to DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday. It's interesting to compare the one-sheet poster above to the home video artwork below. The minor changes demonstrate the ways that Columbia Pictures' parent company Sony has decided to correct the ineffective theatrical marketing campaign, by emphasizing Reese Witherspoon as the star, doing away with the background colors with which the ensemble was coded, and changing Paul Rudd's representation from a disheveled phone conversation to a charming night among lighted trees.

How Do You Know DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), Dolby Surround (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English
Release Date: March 22, 2011
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 (Reduced from $28.95)
Black Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($34.95 SRP $19.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Sony delivers yet another stellar DVD presentation with How Did You Know's warm, clean, sharp, vibrant 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. There is nary a flaw to be found in the picture. There is not much of note about the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, with only Hans Zimmer's okay score complementing the abundance of dialogue.

Annie (Kathryn Hahn), George's loyal, pregnant secretary, checks up on him an additional time in this deleted scene. The blooper reel concludes with footage of an apparently unused premise-establishing Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, and Paul Rudd  photo shoot.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Illustrating that reception bears little consequence for a film's long-planned home video release these days, How Do You Know arrives on DVD with a healthy supply of bonus features.

First up is an audio commentary by writer/director James L. Brooks and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Naturally, Brooks does much of the talking and he has some interesting things to share, mentioning sequences that were shortened and his unsuccessful MPAA ratings appeal (later achieved by an edit). Still, there are a lot of lulls in the track.
An hour in, Brooks and Kaminski are joined by producer Julie Ansell and editors Richard Marks and Tracy Wadmore-Smith, but those three don't enliven the track at all. I don't dislike the movie, but I can't recommend this commentary.

Next, Brooks is joined by Owen Wilson for a rare select scenes commentary. They talk over 33 minutes of scenes, most featuring Wilson's character, with the actor trying to comment while seeing these bits of the film for the first time. In between lulls, the two enjoy themselves and laugh, but say little to justify rewatching a quarter of the movie this way.

On the video side, things begin with four deleted scenes (6:34), which offer more of Lisa's childhood (a wisely-shortened technique recalling Broadcast News' opening), a scene of present-day, post-hookup Lisa training on a stairway, a lunch date anxiety attack, and another appearance by Annie, George's pregnant secretary (played by Kathryn Hahn). Brooks offers limited remarks over them.

A blooper reel (1:56) amuses with its looks at the stars' goofing around in cathartic, unplanned ways.

Writer/director/producer James L. Brooks' pursuit of authenticity, documented in the featurette "Extra Innings", comes at great costs of time and studio money. Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) walks out on both George (Paul Rudd) and Matty (Owen Wilson) in this shot from the DVD's main menu montage.

Finally, "Extra Innings" is a 15-minute making-of featurette whose topics are arranged with baseball terminology. It gives clues as to why the movie took so long (5 years from conception) and cost so much, with research leading to Witherspoon's softball training for what amounts to five minutes of screentime. The film's ideas and lead actors/characters are each given attention.

Though it's a title sure to do most of its business on DVD, How Do You Know's Blu-ray offers some exclusive bonus features: an interactive script gallery, a conversation with James L. Brooks and composer Hans Zimmer, additional deleted scenes with Brooks commentary, and a featurette called "The George" with Brooks commentary.

In an odd break from the norm, the DVD includes no previews for other properties from the menus or before they load. While such ads aren't missed, How Do You Know's own trailer is.

The DVD's main menu plays a scored montage with a squares turning effect. The disc's other menus are simple, static, silent screens. An in-case insert promotes 3D and Sony's make.believe mantra.

How do you know if Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd are right for each other? Watch the movie, or maybe the '90s collegiate version "Overnight Delivery."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

How Do You Know has some good ideas, which are especially appreciated in the present dearth of adult cinema, but it is too staged, heavy-handed, and overlong to have the impact it seeks. Looking past the enormous financial deficit, the film's failings are far from legendary and hopefully James L. Brooks can rebound from this with a much more reasonable budget. Sony's DVD provides an excellent feature presentation and a couple of worthwhile video extras, but all its commentaries are a waste of time.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by James L. Brooks: Broadcast News | Produced by James L. Brooks: Bottle Rocket Say Anything... Big
New: Morning Glory The Switch The Tourist You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger The Fighter
Reese Witherspoon: Four Christmases A Far Off Place | Guest Star Voice: The Simpsons: The Thirteenth Season
Paul Rudd: Over Her Dead Body Dinner for Schmucks I Love You, Man Knocked Up
Owen Wilson: The Darjeeling Limited Marley & Me Drillbit Taylor | Kathryn Hahn: Step Brothers Revolutionary Road
Jack Nicholson: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Chinatown The Shining
Shopgirl Flipped When Harry Met Sally... Dan in Real Life Life As We Know It The Kids Are All Right

How Do You Know Songs List:
Jamie Lidell - "What Is It This Time?" Preview/download: Amazon MP3 iTunes
Inhumane - "Beneath the Bleeding"
Mayer Hawthorne - "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin'" Preview/download: Amazon MP3 iTunes
Jetboy - "Perfectly Wrong" Preview/download: Amazon MP3 iTunes
Teddy Pendergrass - "Turn Off the Lights" Preview/download: Amazon MP3 iTunes

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Reviewed March 21, 2011.



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