Not Quite Up to Olympic Standards

Reese Witherspoon strikes out as a lovelorn softball player

I just don’t know about How Do You Know (that title is asking for it, right?). The latest dram-com from James L. Brooks starts out frozen solid—all glossy surface, no beating heart—but, over the course of two hours, it thaws, drawing you in, warming you up. It’s not on a par with Broadcast News or As Good As It Gets, but it’s certainly not as bad as Spanglish. So there’s that.

Reese Witherspoon stars as Lisa Jorgenson, a plucky softball player on the U.S. Olympic team who, despite her Kewpie-doll face and camp counselor disposition, is tough as nails. She’s half Tracy Flick (Lisa covers her bathroom mirror with candy-colored motivational Post-Its), and half Gabrielle Reece (Witherspoon, whose girlie-girl blowout and spindly limbs don’t convincingly say “jock,” acts for much of the movie as if she’s stuffed a sock in her underpants).

Having only ever dated athletes, Lisa allows herself to be seduced by Matty (Owen Wilson), a pitcher for the Washington Nationals who is every inch the cliché playboy—he even keeps pink hoodies (in varying sizes) for his overnight guests. But after she gets cut from the Olympic team, she goes on a blind date with George Madison (Paul Rudd), a lovelorn finance CEO who’s facing a federal indictment for a crime he didn’t commit.

The remainder of the film is devoted largely to Lisa volleying back and forth between the two men as she struggles to figure out the next step of her life. (Presumably this involves more than just deciding which man’s doorstep to adorably show up on, but that’s as deep as the film gets.) The problem is that there’s absolutely no contest. Wilson’s Matty is affable and funny in a winning, puppy dog kind of a way, but the minute you see Rudd’s sad eyes and self-conscious smile you know how this is going to end. Rudd is so beloved by all who know him that his pregnant assistant (Kathryn Hahn) brings him homemade chicken potpie and calls him from the hospital literally moments after giving birth. I mean, come on, Brooks. At least in Broadcast News there was some real competition.

Rudd is effortlessly endearing as romantic underdog George, even if he comes off like a bit of a stalker, instantly falling for Lisa for no discernible reason and taking every opportunity to regale her with the depths of his obsession. Wilson has a lot of fun with his role, making Matty surprisingly sympathetic for a complete cad. Jack Nicholson, as George’s manipulative father Charles, is … Jack Nicholson. It’s Witherspoon, sadly, who’s the weak link; her Lisa is often chilly and humorless, and the comedic chops she showed off in films such as Legally Blonde are underused. She has the personality of one of her Post-Its, and I spent much of the movie wondering why everyone found her so irresistible. I guess that’s how you know when a movie doesn’t quite cut it.

How Do You Know (PG) ★★★☆☆

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