Listen to the rhythms of Broadcast News---from Holly Hunter's daily crying jags to William Hurt's cock-of-the walk patter---and you'll hear how romantic comedy can approach an art form, a roundelay that requires the ear of a conductor. How Do You Know, James L. Brooks's latest, has such tone-deaf passages that it feels made by a totally different man. Maybe his gift requires a crash-out like this to rejuvenate, but the awkwardness hurts: Reese Witherspoon's recently axed softball pro and pillowy dream girl seems a fabrication of a lesser imagination. Meanwhile, we've seen Paul Rudd do sweet nebbish and Owen Wilson do charming jerk far too many times. (Maybe that's why Brooks left off the question mark; no surprises here.)
Still, how maddening: There are passages that bear the riskiness of the director's former confidence, like an extended sexless seduction in which Rudd offers the deft toast, "Here's to people who make toasts." Another is a spacey pep talk by Wilson over bowls of cereal. (And then there's Jack Nicholson, long past his days of resembling a human being, playing Rudd's shouty business-exec dad.) How Do You Know takes the wholly possible scenario of two decent men courting one woman and turns it into a forced lark that can't bring itself to ask if she's worth it.
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