How Do You Know (12A)

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson
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The Independent Culture

How do you know when you're not enjoying a romantic comedy? Well, speaking personally, I tend to go "tsk" and "d'oh", shift in my seat, check my watch – and in the case of James L Brooks's How Do You Know, hardly ever laugh.

Reese Witherspoon plays another control-freak superwoman, this time a national softball player who's at a low after being dropped from the team. But can she pull herself round to choose between her two suitors, baseball pro Owen Wilson (on $14m per year) or financial exec Paul Rudd (going bankrupt while under federal investigation for fraud)? Wilson is an overgrown kid, dim but likeable, with a relaxed attitude to fidelity; Rudd is a sensitive nice-guy who's been under the corporate thumb of his father and boss (Jack Nicholson). Brooks has made some smart comedies in his time (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets), and Nicholson has bagged a couple of Oscars in them, but neither does himself credit here. The script is so stuttering and therapy-clenched that the characters never get going, and the actors look stranded. "I am anguishing in every way," says Nicholson, and all you think is: since when has "anguish" been a verb? It's a crybaby picture about people trying to be brave and not say what's on their mind - which, once it emerges, turns out to be banal, or narcissistic, or both. Instead of juicing it up with jokes, Brooks has inadvertently given us another story of the American condition, which is that of absolute and incorrigible self-centredness.