The stars in How Do You Know look as if they’ve been sucked into digital rom-com space, where writer-director James L. Brooks explains that the rules are different in this world and everyone must pull as many faces as possible if he or she wants to get to a higher plane of existence. Reese Witherspoon works her big jaw and pops her eyes and always seems on the verge of saying “Shoot!” or “Dagnabbit!” She’s going for Mary Tyler Moore but comes off like a blonde, overcaffeinated morning-talk-show hostess. Paul Rudd plays the adorable young corporate executive unjustly accused of fraud who tries to win Reese by being moony and clutchy and parading his insecurities—normally a good way to get slapped with a restraining order but here meant to seem irresistible. As the sweet but slow-witted pro-baseball horndog who turns possessive whenever Reese shows signs of independence, Owen Wilson takes something off his delivery, and his wobbly curve balls catch the side of the plate: Playing the dumb guy, he’s the only one who shows any intelligence.
The sad part is that How Do You Know is nowhere near as dumb as it looks. A couple of comic set pieces are inspired—or would be, if Brooks’s timing weren’t off. Accustomed to a slower brand of dramaturgy, he can’t master the glib modern rom-com chick-flick shorthand, so every scene takes twice as long to get half as far as we expect. And those scenes are painful. As Rudd’s rich dad, Jack Nicholson—who won Oscars in two of Brooks’s other films—flails his arms and lurches around and runs out of breath and has never looked less like a movie star. Seeing Nicholson purged of charisma, you know there’s a rupture in the space-time continuum.
Note: This review of The Fighter originally ran on Vulture.