Saturday, May 29, 2021

The Intangibles Are Everything

Not sure how long ago it was but some years back, I spotted James L. Brooks in my neighborhood. At least, I thought I did. The guy looked like him. It’s impossible to be certain, but there’s no reason why he wouldn’t take a weekend drive over to Los Feliz with some people for lunch or whatever. While I know next to nothing about the man’s personal life or where he lives or any of that stuff, I just imagine it to be way over on the west side in somewhere like Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, or up in Malibu, one of those places I only rarely venture to these days - the sort of place the characters in his film SPANGLISH lived is what I’m saying - maybe just going to and from the Fox lot to work on THE SIMPSONS. Of course, I have no idea if any of this is the case, but my point is that I sometimes wonder how much time he spends out in the real world to see how people actually behave these days. Los Feliz counts as the real world, right? I’m never sure anymore.
Now having passed its tenth anniversary, HOW DO YOU KNOW is the last film to be written and directed by James L. Brooks. To date, at the very least, and technically there’s still the chance for another but a decade is a long time. Opening the week before Christmas 2010 the film died immediately, even with a reported $120 million spent on it and a cast that included Jack Nicholson in what is also his final film to date. It has its admirers out in the wilds of Film Twitter and, hey, I get why. It’s recognizable as a film by James L. Brooks and I’m willing to defend it to a certain extent on that basis in the way it explores the neuroses of its characters to their utmost depths as if this is the final statement on everything people in his films and TV shows have ever gone through. It’s a film that asks the question of how two people can be compatible and what to really do when faced with the impossible possibility of being together. But it’s also a film that seems to continually ask itself what sort of movie it is for much of the running time and what the story actually is, until it ends so it seems like the film has barely even started and all you’re left with is wondering what it was. How do you know when you’ve even seen a film, anyway? What are you really able to take from it?
Professional softball player Lisa Jorgensen (Reese Witherspoon) is unknowingly on the verge of being left off the team’s roster for the coming year when she begins dating hotshot pitcher Matty Reynolds (Owen Wilson). After getting an awkward call from George Madison (Paul Rudd) to let her know that he won’t be calling to ask for a date after being set up by a friend of hers, George is served with a subpoena for corporate maleficence at the company he works at, run by his father Charles Madison (Jack Nicholson). With his life suddenly in shambles, he calls Lisa again to ask for that date but by the time they meet, Lisa has gotten news of being cut from the team. The dinner goes awkwardly but they soon run into each other again and Lisa is faced with the decision of which of these two men is the right person for her at this point in time, while George has to decide how much the possibility of this woman matters and what that means for his relationship with his father.
The basic notion of two people on a blind date the day both of their lives have fallen apart is a promising kernel of an idea, meeting as they try to figure out where their lives are supposed to go now - asking should they fight what has happened or should they accept that ending and find a new way towards an actual, fulfilling life? How do you know, right? The thing is that I’m not entirely certain this is the idea the film wants to explore and it gets so fixated on the simple, Brooksian aspect of behavior with the separate inciting incidents done in such a way that it’s hard to really get invested in what has happened. The softball team setting feels promising, but it’s discarded almost instantly so we can barely understand what Lisa has lost. The corporate plotline is never clear enough to be all that interesting even when what’s behind it gets revealed. It’s hard to be sure what to focus on here, and while HOW DO YOU KNOW does have a story, it’s often tough to figure out just what that is as if the purpose of many scenes in the film is to figure out why they need to be in the film in the first place. Two of the leads who never actually meet live in the same building, which you’d think could have been established in a clever way but, just like all sorts of other possible connective tissue to get us acclimated to things, this never happens, so we’re left to find our own way from scene to scene. In a way, this is a narrative that wants to strip everything about the plot down, discarding several interesting characters in the early scenes who feel like they’re going to be prominent but then aren’t in order to focus on the main characters away from the worlds that they’ve gotten to know best. There’s an idea to that, but it still insists on dealing with various other elements without any clear idea of why it needs to focus on them.
Having recently written about Brooks’s first theatrical screenplay STARTING OVER, this made me even more aware of the echoes found in HOW DO YOU KNOW as if he was mining the past for inspiration—the back and forth of a woman moving in with a guy she’s seeing, the rare (for films) occurrence of people using buses and even the proposal of two people having their first dinner together in silence. This film actually lets the idea play out during the date in question but even so, STARTING OVER always felt like part of a recognizable world within its own tone while this film never sheds a certain antiseptic feeling that makes it play like the whole thing was shot on a backlot even when it’s clearly filmed on location (the film is set in D.C.; parts were also shot in Philadelphia). The street scenes always look so clean, sparkly and oddly lifeless, everything constantly wet down to make them glisten without a drop of rain ever spotted. It turned up on Netflix for a period in 2020, and that continual, incessant brightness of every scene went perfectly with what has become the Netflix romantic comedy aesthetic in recent years, everything looking perfect and seemingly never part of any recognizable reality. Some of those films never seem to have any apparent goals beyond simply getting you to zone out, which at least can’t be said for HOW DO YOU KNOW, which has characters who spend much of the running time overthinking things to the breaking point. It beats the alternative these days, but it still never quite achieves a flow to allow each scene to go naturally from one moment to the next.
Of course, this reality of behavior is all part of the Brooks approach going back to his sitcom days. Still, especially during the likes of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, he seemed to revel in the messiness of day to day life and how people interact, driving each other crazier with each new decision of how they’re going to screw things up. The scripts of both that film and especially BROADCAST NEWS feel so finely honed, every moment matters so much, but here it becomes a continuous question of why people are behaving in a certain way and what all sorts of moments are even doing there. Even the opening scene, showing Lisa as a young girl discovering softball and how that gets boys to behave towards her, feels off and not establishing any particular themes that would justify it being there. A lot of time is spent with the characters played by Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson as if to justify why they’re being played by such big stars when it’s not really needed, and the film never figures out the right way to resolve either one of them. Wilson as the womanizing hotshot millionaire ballplayer, with a closet filled with souvenir sweat suits for every woman who spends the night in his place, gets scenes on his own where he explores his feelings for Lisa but it never makes sense why he’s technically one of the leads. Jack Nicholson automatically becomes one of the leads due to his very presence but the scenes between him and Rudd, simmering with a presumed hostility coming from whatever the backstory is between them that we don’t hear about, don’t click enough to warrant so much time spent on that either and the bones of the conflict never feel genuine.
There’s a certain push-pull to the plotting that feels familiar with Brooks—the going somewhere that gets interrupted like the Correspondents’ Dinner we never actually enter in BROADCAST NEWS, the trip to visit parents that never happens in AS GOOD AS IT GETS—but here the path it takes constantly seems to lead to dead ends that circle around and start over again, never really leading anywhere. If we needed to siphon the film down to the stuff that feels like it’s essential, I’m not even sure that the results would be what the film itself thinks is right. Maybe the scenes that were taken out needed to be left in. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael’s review of HEAVEN’S GATE, where she said finding stuff to cut from that 219 minute running time was easy. It was figuring out what to keep that was the problem. A movie withholding what it’s really about is one thing. This film feels like it spends much of the running time groping for an answer.
In every way, Reese Witherspoon seems like ideal casting for a James L. Brooks heroine, the sight of the inspirational quotes that surround Lisa in her bathroom mirror that have resulted in nothing feeling like it crystalizes what is going on inside her, not a single one of them containing what she needs. But, too often, the film doesn’t know what to do with that inner conflict unless it wants to say that the opening flashback showing her as a girl means that she’s destined for a life of always getting knocked down by men and the softball thing never mattered anyway? One turning point for the character, silently realizing that she has no place anymore with the team she’s been cut from, is brushed over so quickly as if it was salvaged from footage meant to be used for something else. The things in the film that register happening within scenes often feel too isolated as if it barely matters that they’re in the film at all. A scene where she visits a psychiatrist played by Tony Shalhoub feels promising, but anything learned from it is dropped just as one bit where Owen Wilson loses his temper while trying to make a point. For a moment, the character actually seems human, but all we’re left with is that one brief glimpse of relatability.
You can feel the film searching for those themes to focus on through all of that, and occasionally it comes within reach. Paul Rudd has a few moments, especially silent ones like the calm displayed by George after his first dinner (the pasta also looks appealing) with Lisa and even Reese Witherspoon’s abrasiveness, annoyed that the guy she’s with might actually be looking at her, sometimes makes total sense. The film at least knows to look for these quiet passages, like the way the camera follows behind her as she heads for their first dinner, but just as many such moments feel like the movie is just killing time. And when Brooks isn’t willing to let things stay quiet, the question of tone also becomes an issue, revealing how much he needs to get the actors to take it down a few notches. But at times, it comes close to feeling right, especially during the long hospital scene late in the film after George’s secretary, played by Kathryn Hahn, who’s getting all sorts of attention these days, who has given birth. The single funniest reaction of the entire film happens here, thanks to her, and it’s the one scene where everything makes sense. Even a joke involving Nicholson that feels shoehorned in works because it feels like it came organically out of the character’s feelings towards each other. Much of it involves Hahn’s boyfriend played by Lenny Venito (who’s just great here) coming in to propose to her and the mess that develops involving getting the moment on video almost seems to make sense of the entire film, turning it into a display of life improvising what once happened to try to make it even better. You could say that none of this feels like a part of the real world. Still, it is a part of the director’s world, as much as anything made by Howard Hawks after 1960 was, resulting in films that stripped the interests of the director to its essentials while also displaying an older filmmaker presenting what he still thinks of as the world out there. It almost doesn’t matter that it’s something else entirely. In this case, it’s the minutiae, the nervousness, the reasons for why they feel like they need to be together in the end. If anything, this is what HOW DO YOU KNOW has and what the story feels like it needs to be.
At one point, Paul Rudd’s George states, “Optimism is sanity,” as a way of approaching what he hopes will be his relationship with Lisa, a curious restatement of the way Jack Nicholson’s character declares, “Cynicism is sanity,” early on as a way of protecting yourself in the world. The repetition in the phrasing is barely noticeable. At least, it took me several viewings, but maybe one of the things that the film is saying is that making the second choice can be the only way to connect with people, even if it means going against what you’ve known your entire life. And, if I’m going to be honest here, the things that connect are the things in the movie that I identify with almost against my will and don’t even feel entirely comfortable pointing out. Certain moments of the developing relationship between the two leads are scattered in there, when Reese Witherspoon gets a little too testy with Paul Rudd in ways that still seem genuine followed by the actual connection. The overall message seems to be that even when something perfect that you’ve already achieved in life gets fucked up, you can still find your way with help from the people around you who matter and care and want to understand who you really are, that one small adjustment George gets to tell her about when he finally has the courage. I have some affection towards HOW DO YOU KNOW and even find some of the messiness endearing since the idea of searching through all that clutter in life is something I can relate to, but whether that’s my own screwiness in trying to find value in a lesser James L. Brooks film or actual things found inside of the film, I’m still not sure.
You can feel Reese Witherspoon and Paul Rudd trying to make this work, and occasionally between the two of them it does when they’re able to connect in the moment. Witherspoon balances out the uncertainty of the character in the broad sense with what the character is always ready to insist on without even being asked while Rudd is best when he’s just in the moment looking at someone, able to relax in just playing off someone. Even Owen Wilson clearly wants this to work even though his character, always willing to talk around the idea of how monogamous he is, never connects in a broad sense so he just falls back on the Owen Wilson vibe which never feels entirely correct. It’s the sort of curious energy that makes what Kathryn Hahn is doing all the better. She feels like the most human presence here no matter how big she plays it, a very emotional person getting more emotional without even trying. Deceptively simple reaction shots of her are astonishing. She’s the only person who seems to have a life that continues when she’s offscreen, a feeling that only grows when Lenny Venito makes his appearance as her boyfriend. We can only imagine the rest of this romantic comedy starring them that we’re only getting to see the climax of. A few other people like Mark-Linn Baker, Shelley Conn and Molly Price have roles that seem promising like they will be important but turn out to be briefer than expected. Maybe they were always small roles. Maybe the film got reworked so many times that that’s what they became. And then there’s a performance by Jack Nicholson which feels like he’s doing a favor for his old friend Jim Brooks with every scene playing a little as if he’s letting his glasses do most of his acting for him, with a standoffish vibe to the father-son storyline, but also maybe like he wanted to use it as an excuse that he just wasn’t feeling it anymore so why not simply bow out. It’s hard not to think about how this is his last movie after forty-plus years of stardom, but there’s nothing in the material to warrant reading too much into that.
But it takes time for dreams to fade, like it or not. If we admit the truth to ourselves about what the reality is, that can help, but sometimes all we can do is fight through those feelings until there’s nothing left to fight anymore. Even if we believe that truth, even if we can look at ourselves in the mirror and admit it, it still isn’t an easy thing to face. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t really see James L. Brooks in my neighborhood that time, but that’s not the issue. This film, which opened the same day as TRON LEGACY, is mostly forgotten now except for likely being Jack Nicholson’s last, along with that reported $120 million budget, presumably made up from star salaries, reshoots and Brooks’s own indecisions. It’s very likely that we’re not going to get something else like it anytime soon. Maybe the thing about HOW DO YOU KNOW is that the film asks too many questions it doesn’t know the answer to instead of being willing to come out and say something, anything at all, which, come to think of it, is kind of like life, especially this past year. But at least it’s a film trying to improve itself in the search for whatever it’s supposed to be. In that sense, it’s honest. To find the answers in a movie like this, you sometimes have to dig for it. That’s kind of like life, too.

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