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How Do You Know review

As underwhelming as it gets…

There’s a question mark missing from the title of James L. Brooks’ navel-gazer, a film that explores how we know whether we are in love, trouble, denial, limbo...

The rogue punctuation isn’t the only thing AWOL from a project that, on paper, boasts all the right ingredients for comedy gold but has failed to cash in at the US box office.

There’s perky Reese Witherspoon playing Lisa, a perky pro-softball player who finds herself professionally directionless when she’s dropped from the Olympic team. She’s also emotionally torn between jobless, indicted and sweet George (sweet Paul Rudd) and Matty, a womanising baseball player with a good heart (affable Owen Wilson).

George is also stressed over his boorish pa (Jack Nicholson, shouty), who’s putting pressure on him to take the rap for dodgy dealing in their family business. Everyone’s in a fix. Everyone wants to cogitate neurotically about it all. Or worse, talk about how they don’t/can’t talk about it.

Like his characters, Brooks seems similarly all at sea about what he’s trying to achieve. If this is a romcom, there’s very little rom or com. Usually so effortless in delivering mirth, Witherspoon and Rudd are reduced to desperate facial gymnastics as they try to sell leaden lines that sound like motivational mantras.

There’s also a sour meet-not-so-cute that sucks much of the likeability out of their characters. Nicholson’s bullying showboat seems imported from an unconnected still-born project, while a side story with George’s secretary being proposed to in hospital plays as both hollow and strange.

Only Wilson seems assured in his role as bonehead smuthound, trotting out his tried and tested Fockers routine and hogging the few genuine laughs in a haphazardly paced film.

Somewhere in here there may be an interesting comedy about a woman who doesn’t know if she’s cut out for the usual female options offered by your standard Devil Wears Bride Wars Shopaholic confection.

Witherspoon is at her most effective when flirting with Rudd over a cocktail and musing on the fact that she’s not yearning for marriage. But Brooks seems unable to be simple without being simplistic.

Perhaps he should have taken the advice Rudd’s sadsack doles out: “We’re all just one small adjustment away from making our lives work.”

A few adjustments could have made this As Good As It Gets. Instead, it’s a folly that squanders its talent.

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Available platformsMovie