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      How Do You Know Review

      How Do You Know poster

      How Do You Know

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      On paper and in the gossip-sphere, the new romantic comedy written and directed by James L. Brooks has had a lot to overcome. Ridiculous budget, north of $100 million. Suspiciously few advance screenings. An aura of bland, generic complication in the film's marketing. But "How Do You Know" turns out to be quite good, and its strengths are a lot more interesting than its limitations.

      Reports of re-shoots indicate Brooks' own nervousness about the story resolution. Here's how the story begins: A lifelong can-do athlete, Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has devoted her life to Team USA women's' softball. Adversity strikes; she's cut from the team, right around the same time the dutiful son (Paul Rudd) of a slippery businessman (Jack Nicholson) suspected of securities fraud learns he may be taking the rap in a federal investigation. When they meet, George, Rudd's character, falls quickly for Lisa, but she's just begun a question mark of a relationship with an easygoing pro baseball player (Owen Wilson, shrewdly cast and genuinely funny).

      Clearly we know where we're going in "How Do You Know," the audience certainty underscored by the title being a statement, not a question. The first 20 minutes -- not promising. Hans Zimmer's musical score is the worst kind of sitcom garbage, and in the first scene between Nicholson and Rudd, the exposition keeps tripping over itself.

      Then, gradually, you're reminded why Brooks gave us so much good television over the years, in addition to his better movies, chief among them "Broadcast News." He likes his characters, plain and simple. He makes them all smart, or at least screen worthy, in different ways. The writing has a healthy supply of wit, both in its bantering mode ("I used to be a bartender," Rudd says, channeling a more relaxed version of golden-age Jack Lemmon, "back when I was working my way through bartending") and in its more dramatic material. At one point Nicholson's character, who is trying to keep on his son's good side, reverts to his bullying instincts. Quietly, George counters: "Stop shouting. I don't hear you when you do that. Ever."

      Two years ago, the misery-inducing rom-com "Four Christmases" scored a popular success, and if there's a reason for that, I suspect the reason's name is Reese. It's a pleasure to watch Witherspoon relax on screen, as she does in "How Do You Know," and play material for all it's worth without straining for effect. Working with both Rudd and Wilson can't help but unwind a co-star for the better.

      The film putters in its third act, yet here too we're given a typical Brooks payoff: As George's longtime and deeply pregnant employee, Kathryn Hahn is treated to a generous amount of screen time, and, in the nicest way, this supporting player hijacks the movie for a while. Most movies would've kept her on the sidelines. Most movies would've found a way, intentionally or just stupidly, to patronize the female lead and make her the object of plot machinery, rather than a reasonably dimensional and approachable human being living her life.

      "How Do You Know" culminates in a penthouse party sequence straight out of a Broadway comedy of the 1960s. It's old-fashioned, even static, but I liked it for the same reasons I liked "How Do You Know" in general: It's relaxed without being sloppy, or patronizing, and in particular Witherspoon and Lemmon -- sorry, make that Rudd -- bring charm to burn.

      MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some strong language).

      Running time: 1:53.

      Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Lisa); Owen Wilson (Matty); Paul Rudd (George); Jack Nicholson (Charles); Kathryn Hahn (Annie).

      Credits: Written and directed by James L. Brooks; produced by James L. Brooks, Paula Weinstein, Laurence Mark and Julie Ansell. A Sony Pictures release.

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