How Do You Know seems to have an identity crisis; it seemingly wants to call audiences’ attention to the fact that it’s a movie while also eschewing the conventions of film. The characters behave in ways and say things that only people in a movie would do and say. Yet the film also goes above and beyond to bring these characters to life – so much so that they become real in familiar and predictable ways. In the end, audiences are left with a mishmash of vignettes, with some scenes that often feel contrived and others that usually over develop characters. The one common thread throughout the entire film is strong acting, but with a two-hour runtime even the excellent performances can’t keep sitting through the entire movie from feeling like a chore.
Lisa Jorgenson (Reese Witherspoon) is a 31-year-old softball player on the USA women’s team. With her future on the team still uncertain, Lisa decides to also focus on her love life and hooks up with professional major league baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson). Unfortunately, Matty is emotionally unavailable and doesn’t understand the meaning of monogamy. By chance, one of Lisa’s teammates puts her in contact with another prospective love interest, George (Paul Rudd), who is a nice guy, but going through personal and professional problems, like a federal investigation. In their own ways, all three participants in this bizarre love triangle discover that the path to true love is meandering and full of distractions.
How Do You Know could easily shed 30 minutes of runtime and still tell the exact same story with the same impact. Instead, much of the extra time in the film is spent simply living with the characters. They’re shown doing many ordinary things for extended periods, like going to therapy, getting drunk and discussing their personal tests for love. These scenes don’t really push the plot forward, but they give audiences better insight into the characters and give the actors room to act. Once these scenes end, however, audiences may wonder why they ran so long without offering any kind of meaningful takeaway.
The development of each of the characters also makes it difficult to understand who audiences should be rooting for. The film seems to revolve around Lisa – at the very least it starts with her – but then seems to turn into George’s story. His subplot is wholly developed as well, complete with personal conflict with his father (Jack Nicholson), and could be a satisfying story in itself without having to involve George’s pursuit of Lisa. When nothing wraps up as nicely as most will hope for, it’s hard not to feel let down after having consumed the minutia of the characters’ lives.
For any shortcomings audiences may find in How Do You Know, none of them are the fault of the cast. By and large, everyone does a solid job in their respective roles and performs as naturally as possible, given the confines of their sometimes odd lines and direction. Even Owen Wilson – who will probably be unfairly pegged as playing himself due to his inescapable speech pattern – impresses here. While Reese Witherspoon handles the strong-spirited Lisa well, it’s Paul Rudd who does most of the heavy lifting throughout. He showcases a tremendous amount of range, whether it’s slapstick comedy bashing his head against a table or standard romcom endless loving gazes. Ironically, the most satisfying performances come from some of the minor characters late in the film, during a marriage proposal. It’s a genuinely touching moment that will refreshingly speak volumes about the characters without actually having to.
Most of the time, the actors are given the time to act and the scenes have room to breathe without being distracted by direction. Unfortunately, these times are often capped by some clichéd moment of realization accompanied by a light piano soundtrack to signal a Pavlovian response in audiences that they’ve just witnessed the point of the scene. The duality of naturalness and contrivance is effective, but in a very deliberate way.
With such a competent cast it’s unfortunate to feel that all of this potential was stretched too thinly and dispersed rather than focused. At its core, this film is about two people turning big corners in their lives and running into each other, discovering that they’re a good fit together. That story probably doesn’t need two hours and too many tangents to be told effectively.