How Do You Know is about Lisa (Reese Witherspoon), a 31-year-old professional softball player who’s been cut from the US national team and is struggling to figure who she is if she’s not an athlete any more. Making the process more complicated are her relationships with two men – one a friend and fellow athlete Matty (Owen Wilson), and the other a probably-indicted businessman, the somewhat nebbish George (Paul Rudd). To its credit, How Do You Know, which was written and directed by the legendary James L. Brooks is not formulaic. It gives us complicated characters who speak in realistic ways and who don’t behave according to predictable Hollywood story arcs. It’s just a shame that in eschewing formula, it also had to eschew interesting. This movie drags and dawdles and delivers almost no laughs as it does so.
As far as plot and dialogue go, it’s pretty boring. But its approach to gender is a little more interesting. One of the most common themes running through rom coms from the last decade is that of the uptight career woman who doesn’t know how to have fun, and whose priorities are all out of whack – that is, who doesn’t spend enough time courting male approval and attention. The cure for this female illness is always meeting and falling in love with the man of her dreams (even if she hates him at first). How Do You Know doesn’t hit you over the head with the message that Lisa needs to learn to loosen up and that a long-term monogamous heterosexual relationship will make that happen, but that message certainly is there. Lisa might not wear a suit and black Louboutins – universal rom com mark of a hard-driving career bitch – but she’s an ambitious, high-achieving woman, whose job requires her to put aside emotion, a habit that predictably impinges on her ability to have a good time. At one point, Matty declares that he’s going to teach her how to have fun. Which, apart from being a dicktastic thing to say to a woman you just finished having sex with, drives home the message that while she might not work in an office, we’re meant to read Lisa as an uptight career bitch.
What’s so disappointing about this is that, gender-wise, How Do You Know starts very strong. The opening shot is of a young boy trying and failing to hit a tee-ball as his younger sister looks on in the background. When he leaves in frustration, she picks up the bat, which is almost longer than she is tall, and takes a swing. The next thing we is that same girl, now a teenager, scoring the winning home run for her high school team. Then, the camera cuts to a conference table, where US national team coaches are deciding whether or not to let that woman keep playing and calling her a role model. The new team manager, a man, refuses when the women coaches ask him to give Lisa a heads-up that she’s being cut. “Just because we field women athletes,” he says, “doesn’t mean we have to get all girly when someone’s time is up.” The women coaches call him an asshole, and we’re meant to agree. This seemed like an auspicious start to the movie. Similarly, the first time we meet George, the businessman who’s in trouble with the law, we get a good dose of gender commentary. His domineering father (Jack Nicholson), angry at the news that George has endangered the company, lets rip a cruel diatribe that uses his son’s tendency to trust people and to think creatively as obvious swipes at his masculinity.
How Do You Know is to be commended, on the other hand, for including a handful of peripheral female characters, all of whom have names, none of whom fall into the usual traps rom coms usually set for best friends and sidekicks. Lisa’s best friend, Riva, is a black woman who thankfully wasn’t written or performed as a Sassy Black Friend. She’s a fellow softball player, and while she isn’t given a whole lot of screen time, what we do see of her is surprisingly devoid of stereotypes. George’s girlfriend, who dumps him when his professional life begins to unravel, is also a woman of color – a physics professor played Shelley Conn, a British actress of Indian descent. Conn’s Terry isn’t given a great deal of screen time, but again, it’s quality time. Then, there’s Annie, George’s assistant, who is fiercely loyal and whose character is unusually finely drawn by rom com standards. Annie is given a good deal of emotional heavy lifting to do in this movie; she’s George’s friend, as well as his employee. Assistants in rom coms are usually two-dimensional characters, women with no lives outside of work, or with tormented love lives about which they consult their bosses. Annie, refreshingly, has a job that she cares about, as well as a life outside of that job.
How Do You Know just barely passes the Bechdel Test, which is kind of odd, given that most of the conversations between women are between Lisa, her teammates and her coaches. Yet, these women almost never talk about softball. They talk about dates and about men, but rarely about the game they play together professionally. When Lisa is cut from the team, her teammates gather at her house to show their support for her, but the conversation quickly turns to the date she has that night. When one of Lisa’s coaches tries to talk with her about what to do with her life now that she’s not a professional athlete, the conversation ends with the conclusion that Matty is a great pitcher and he’s rich, so Lisa should “go get him.”
This movie is spectacularly dull. It’s not romantic, and it doesn’t even approach comedy. It’s not formulaic, and that sets it apart from almost every other romantic comedy I’ve reviewed this yea. But what’s the point in avoiding formula if you also embrace subtle sexism, and bore the audience to tears to boot?