The world is divided between givers and takers - you know who you are - who often get matched up with each other in the same unfortunate ways as the characters in James L. Brooks' touching, witty new film, How Do You Know.
I saw witty, rather than funny. While the commercials focus on the humor - and there is some - this isn't primarily a comedy. Romantic, yes, and, again, funny at times. But How Do You Know is more about the shifts - tectonic and otherwise - in relationships that shake the participants, who assumed the relationship was stable and unshakable.
Well, not unshakable. Olympic athlete Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) knows that her boyfriend, major-league pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson), is a dog, but she accepts that. As long as he's present when they're together, she's not looking for much more.
Until, that is, Matty offers to take it to another level. She's certainly ready but she has no expectations. Once he makes the offer, however, that changes; monogamy is supposed to mean something, right?
Meanwhile, what relationship seems more rock-solid than parent and child? And yet few are more fraught with baggage. So it is with George (Paul Rudd) and his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson). George works for Charles - and both seem genuinely horrified when the government drops a bomb on George: a pending indictment for wire fraud. George swears he's innocent - but before he can say much more, Charles' corporate attorney essentially ushers him out the door and announces that no one in the company can have any further contact with him until the matter is settled.
It quickly becomes apparent that, in fact, the wrong-doing came from higher up - specifically, from Charles' office. Which puts George in an even tighter vise than before: Not just the prospect of jail, but the choice between fighting the charges himself or telling the truth and pointing the finger of blame where it belongs - at his father.
In the midst of this, George meets Lisa - on what turns out to be the worst day of both their lives. Something clicks and, though Lisa is on-again, off-again with Matty, she finds herself drawn to George as well.
Brooks' script is more hit than miss, but it is hit-and-miss nonetheless. He's never made a flat-out comedy as a film (despite being the sensibility behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, to an extent, The Simpsons). From Terms of Endearment (which starts funny) to Broadcast News to As Good As It Gets (and, yes, even in Spanglish), Brooks has used humor to get at deeper issues of human behavior.
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