Thursday, December 23, 2010

How Do You Know

"Cynicism is Sanity"
"The Uncertainty Principles"

James L. Brooks finds salve in a cynical world.  That he is The Godfather of "The Simpsons" and is responsible for investing that rancid cartoon with so much heart and soul is testament to the fact.

But, that is Brooks' great charm as a writer-director—finding the grace in bad situations, and charting a course through it,  providing evidence that, even with no destination in sight, life is a process.  The journey is all, and you might as well enjoy it, every bump, every neglect, every inequity, every injury...or else you won't know  the good times to be (or not to be) if you tripped over them at night.  The light that emanates from the projector of his films is his own candle in the darkness.

How Do You Know presents two professionals in life-changing positions (something we are all too liable to identify with in the country's state of affairs).  Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a disciplined, principled professional softball player, who also manages to be the soul of her team.  When she gets cut from the roster, she's devastated—the game is all she knows, and she finds herself adrift...hell, not even in left-fieldAll of the life-strategy post-it notes on all the refrigerators in all the world can't help her through this. On the other side of the financial spectrum, George (Paul Rudd) is an investments broker, working for the firm of his Dad (Jack Nicholson), and everything is just fine, thank you, until the subpoena shows up, and he must go through the process of being disengaged from his company, fiancee, friends, apartment, belongings, essentially becoming a "non-person." As his father's lawyer informs him, "Accept the inevitable.  Accept that you will never again be the person you are."

And he's being nice.

George goes into a tail-spin.  Luckily, he gets a "hook-up" date with Lisa, but he's in no shape for it, unloading his angst in a vitriolic stream.  Appalled, she upbraids him:  "Jesus! Do you know I don't know you?"

And that's how it starts:  George's stock is falling, and Lisa's struck out.  But in the great balancing act of the Universe, they might be lucky in love.  Maybe.  But, the course never goes smooth, as Lisa has started a relationship with a pro-ball player Matty (Owen Wilson), who's self-absorbed and a bit dim.  And with his troubles, George isn't exactly "a real chick-magnet," as Lisa sarcastically characterizes him.  Sounds like a typical romantic-comedy, the type in which Witherspoon has specialized the past few years.

But, at its heart, it's a bit more complicated than that, and thus, may not fill the rom-com comfort food quotient.  Lisa and George are two people with no prospects who have fallen off a cliff—additionally, falling in love may only serve to create more momentum to leave a bigger crater when they hit bottom.  There's a psychiatrist who says that the only people who think they control their Universe are psychotics...or bullies (temporarily, anyway)...or deluded.  Lisa and George are surrounded by them, no doubt wondering how such manage to survive.  Are they folks who can float on the tides of fate, or just an anchor.

Probably its all too much heaviness to attribute to this film, as slight as it is, never achieving the weight of Broadcast News, or the heart of Spanglish, but considering what has passed for romantic comedy the past few years, How Do You Know could pass for Noel Coward.  It, at least, tries to do something with the genre, placing the situation in a less sure framework—How Do You Know by its very title attempts to define the undefinable, and take this type of film out of the realm of the assured, even going so far as to remove the staple of the form: the clinch at fade-out.  Instead, we are left with a negative image that informs without giving much information, providing possibilities, but no definitive answers.

I like that. 

How Do You Know is a Matinee.  

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