‘How Do You Know': Nutty, and Unappetizing, as a Holiday Fruitcake

Owen Wilson is the only bright moment in this latest disappointment from James L. Brooks

How do you know that “How Do You Know,” writer-director James L. Brooks’ leaden new romantic comedy, is a mess?

Well, when Reese Witherspoon’s character asks a beau, “Am I boring you?” you'll find yourself sorely tempted to respond with a vehement “Yes!”

And that’s a huge disappointment because Brooks, with “Terms of Endearment,”“Broadcast News” and “As Good as It Gets,” has crafted some of the most memorable popular films of the last several decades. Each of those featured singular characters, gracefully shaped scenes and zinger lines, all of which resonate still.

In “Terms,” one remembers the randy romance between middle-aged neighbors Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, a hilarious example of opposites attracting. Added bonus: Nicholson’s retired astronaut, Garrett Breedlove, sported one of the all the time great movie monikers.

In the savvy satire “Broadcast News,” there was a freshness to Holly Hunter’s hyper-talented producer — a character that had never been seen on a screen before — and bite to Nicholson’s brief but telling turn as an overpaid anchor. Scene after scene offered a revealing, insider’s look at how the sausage was made at a network news operation, especially Joan Cusack’s mad dash to deliver a just-edited videotape in time to air.

With good reason, nearly every critic, including me, genuflected to “Broadcast News” last month when reviewing “Morning Glory,” which came up woefully short in comparison.

“As Good as It Gets,” which won top acting Oscars for both Nicholson and Helen Hunt, was a gloriously quirky love story, with Nicholson’s obsessive-compulsive writer warily romancing Hunt’s much younger, single-mother waitress. And the movie provided every man with the ultimate, make-her-heart melt line, when Nicholson told Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man.”

Of course, Brooks has had his misses. “I’ll Do Anything,” with Nick Nolte as an unsuccessful actor, was a mess. It began life as a musical but after a long and complicated history, including audience testing, the songs were cut, leaving a spindly story and characters.

“Spanglish” was even worse, the spectacularly sour-tasting story of a marriage going bad. The husband, a celebrity chef (Adam Sandler, straining to emote) in Los Angeles, is allegedly the warm-hearted hero and his wife (Téa Leoni) a withholding, insecure bitch; soon, he falls for the family’s beautiful Mexican housekeeper (Paz Vega), though she speaks almost no English and he very little Spanish. This did not make him a better man.

“How Do You Know” goes solidly in the miss column. The characters, with the exception of Owen Wilson’s swaggering professional baseball pitcher, seem ill-defined, and the plot never catches hold. Making things worse, it's awkwardly shot, with sluggish camera movement and little sense of place.

Its heroine is Witherspoon's Lisa, a professional athlete in Washington, D.C., who early on is cut from the national softball team. At nearly the same time that she’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life, she meets two very different men. Matty (Wilson) is a successful jock who has a problem with fidelity; George (Paul Rudd) is a nice-guy business executive being investigated by the SEC for possible violations at his father’s company, where he works. (Dad is played by Brooks stalwart Nicholson.)

The movie is built around keeping three balls in the air simultaneously: which man will Lisa choose, what will she do with her life now that baseball is behind her, and is George guilty of corporate wrongdoing or is someone else making him the fall guy?

The problem is that Witherspoon has so little chemistry with either co-star that you couldn’t care less which one she chooses. (Wilson’s character gets all the good lines, though Rudd’s is the one we’re supposed to be rooting for.) As for Lisa’s post-baseball career, it's barely explored. She talks, once or twice, about going to graduate school, but we never learn how she’s going to finance it or what it is that she might plan to study. And while the movie spends much time delving into George’s workplace dilemma, it’s so lacking in specifics (what the heck does Dad’s company do or make, anyway?) that even MBAs will be yawning.

Wilson gives the best performance here, or at least the funniest, but by now he can play this kind of self-confident, philosopher stud muffin in his sleep. Witherspoon alternates between being spunky and vulnerable, delivering her lines as written and never exploring the subtext. Rudd has a few moments  — he’s good at playing drunk — but mostly he simply registers as sweet and schlumpy.

“How Do You Know” is this season’s cinematic equivalent of that dreaded holiday fruitcake. The individual ingredients sound promising, but somewhere between the mixing and the baking, the final result leaves a lot to be desired.