Jack Nicholson, left, and Paul Rudd star in "How Do You Know." (David James / Associated…)
James L. Brooks always follows his heart. Both what's best about his work as a writer-director — and sections of his new "How Do You Know" are wonderful — and what is not come from the same source: a complete faith in his personal instincts. Instincts that, inevitably, can let him down.
Brooks' films include "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News" and "As Good as It Gets" and no one working today creates romantic comedy characters as invigorating, involving and idiosyncratic. No one has his ability to depict people as they are, people so self-aware we hold our breath in anticipation of what their next move will be in the neurotic dance of insecurity and attraction, despair and love.
"How Do You Know," the writer-director's first film since 2004's "Spanglish," stars Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson and provides a stage for several memorable characters. But as strong as these people can be as individuals, they don't manage to coalesce into a memorable whole, and the journey they take is one Brooks has been unable to completely bring us along on.
Brooks' notion for this film is to have two people meet each other without realizing they're both at the lowest points in their lives. They have to overcome the dreadful first impression they make on each other, while simultaneously negotiating their personal crises as well as this potentially life-changing relationship.
"How Do You Know" marks a welcome return to romantic comedies after a few years' absence for Witherspoon, an actress of impeccable comic-dramatic instincts who has a charming accessibility and verve on screen. She plays Lisa Jurgensen, a young woman who has devoted her entire life to being the best at what she does, which is play second base for the U.S. national softball team. Someone who actually believes the positive thinking notes pasted on her bathroom mirror ("Courage is mastery of fear, not absence of fear"), the 31-year-old Lisa is totally unprepared to have a feckless new coach decide to make a statement by cutting her from the team.
George Madison (Rudd) runs a business founded by his father, Charles (Nicholson). George is so much the nice guy that his first interaction with Lisa is to call to tell her that he is not going to be asking her for a blind date as a mutual friend of theirs has suggested.
Almost before he hangs up, George's life descends into a chaotic maelstrom. The young executive finds himself the target of a federal stock fraud investigation and, though it's clear he's done nothing wrong, a government indictment looks more and more likely.
This professional turmoil also causes chaos in George's personal life. His self-involved girlfriend (a splendid cameo by Shelley Conn) cuts him loose, his father tells him his first priority is the company, and his very loyal, very pregnant assistant Annie ( Kathryn Hahn) fears losing her job if she tells him all she knows.
Lisa, meanwhile, has embarked on a wacky relationship with Matty, a successful pitcher for the Washington Nationals. As played by Owen Wilson, the guileless, casually charismatic, always womanizing Matty pretty much steals the picture. Even Brooks admits to being seduced, noting in the press material that he "had more fun with the character than I imagined — and I changed the story to make him a central part of the plot."
The irresistible thing about Matty is what an overgrown boy he is, bound and determined to have nothing but fun in his life. Matty may have so many conquests that Lisa feels at first like she's "on an assembly line just spitting out girls" but he's completely unapologetic about his behavior and never ever lies about what he's doing.
The kind of guy whose idea of preparing a special meal for his girl is pouring her a bowl of his favorite cold cereal, Matty finds his increased involvement with Lisa leads him to emotional territory he never even knew existed. "This is breakthrough stuff for me," he says, more than once, his eyes widening, and it really is.
While Lisa and Matty are trying to work things out, a combination of circumstances puts George back into Lisa's orbit and he decides that she is the girl for him.
Though all the pieces are in place for an amusing romance, "How Do You Know" (the title refers to knowing when you're in love) doesn't work out as it should. For one thing, a key part of George's life is dealing with his father, and that relationship, and Nicholson's performance, seem to come from a somewhat different, considerably stranger movie.
The bigger problem is that, paradoxically, after George begins to fixate on Lisa he becomes a less involving character. Focusing on her with over-eager earnestness, thunderstruck George loses appeal just when he should be gaining it. The film insists we have to root for him, but as he morphs into the least interesting character in the film he doesn't seem any more suitable for Lisa than Matty does.
Because their relationship hasn't been made plausible (even Lisa is disconcerted that he looks at her like Bambi), a film whose birthright is naturalness ends up forcing an emotional situation. If, as someone says in one of Brooks' trademark excellent lines, we all feel we're "one small adjustment away from making our lives work," this film is one small adjustment away as well.
Movie info: 'How Do You Know'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content and some strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: In general release