source: Sony Pictures

Review: How Do You Know (2010) *****

In How Do You Know, Reese Witherspoon ages out of a softball career at the wizened age of 31 and finds herself reeling. A practical, determined person with affirmations taped all over her mirrors, she approaches her post-sports period with a conscious kind of soul-searching. Her compassion and vigor catches the eye of Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd, two extremely different suitors, and then a lot of adorable introspective stuff happens and I loved it.

With a star average of 3.2, Letterboxd does not agree, to say the least. At this point, I’ve decided Letterboxd just doesn’t like earnest romance the way I do. How Do You Know is about a character on a sincere journey, and God forbid she does it by having heartfelt conversations with a couple of guys in good lighting.

Reese Witherspoon’s performance as a well-written heroine was just a delight. It’s easy to see why she attracts both of the guys–although Paul Rudd’s uniquely smitten performance does a lot of heavy lifting. I like to talk about actors who have good Pining Face (they’re usually in the regency movies/shows), but Paul Rudd’s Adoration Face is something else entirely. No matter how much terrible life stuff he’s dealing with (his dad is business shark Jack Nicholson, so it’s a lot), it seems like gravity completely vanishes whenever Rudd is in the same space as Witherspoon. He grows *devoted*.

Paul Rudd’s character is generally delightful to watch. He never reacts quite the way I’d expect. He’s much too nice, extremely neurotic, and up to his neck in a federal indictment for businessy-bribing-idk-stuff that he did not personally do. He effervesces pathetically through the situation. More than anything, this guy just wants to help out, even if that means taking the fall for Dad Jack Nicholson’s crimes (maybe??) (he’s thinking about it). He would fully be a sad sack in another actor’s hands. Rudd somehow makes it fun to watch. And Jack Nicholson somehow softens himself into the role, matching Rudd’s energy, turning the grimmest dad moments into something…heartfelt? How did they do that?

Choosing Owen Wilson to play the heel was casting brilliance, mostly because I find it hard to decide if I should even describe him that way. This is another one where casting changed the character’s writing entirely! Jealous and sometimes obsessive behavior would look like an entire stadium of red flags played by most actors. Wilson makes smashing a lamp seem like a golden retriever just got the zoomies rather than a jilted boyfriend angry his girlfriend left. It takes a deft hand to play someone so persistently clueless without the faintest sense of malice. Instead, you walk away feeling like they’re the wrong fit: so many women would be happy with Wilson, and Witherspoon just needs something else.

This unexpectedly charming romcom reminded me of Four Christmases, another Reese Witherspoon romcom that won me over last year. It’s funny how all the romcoms I’ve been watching have made me totally reevaluate my mental rankings of actresses who tend to appear in this genre. Meg Ryan remains my absolute favorite, but Reese Witherspoon has bumped Julia Roberts out of the rankings for me. I still love Roberts! But where Roberts seems drawn to cynical darker-edged stories, Witherspoon seems drawn to warmly textured character pieces, and I prefer the latter when I’m watching romcoms.

Speaking of actresses who tend to appear in this genre, Katherine Hahn really made a living off of best friend roles in romcoms for a while. Here, she’s not bff to Goldie Hawn’s daughter, but to Paul Rudd. Not only do we get a very lovely close friendship between the two, but Hahn’s character is also the platform for one of the sweetest scenes in the movie. It also just occurred to me that the extremely close platonic relationship between Hahn and Rudd is a great contrast with Wilson’s immediate suspicion at finding Witherspoon with a male friend. (In defense of the toxic golden retriever, though, was he wrong? Maybe his “I’m the third wheel in a romcom” sense was tingling.)

In general this is a very well-constructed movie. Creative spotlighting create a dreamy atmosphere vignetting our lovers at the important moments. Much of the story is actually about the characters’ respective journeys, and meeting up to parse everything that’s happening is where love forms. The ultimate expressions of love are so sincere that it’s hard not to imagine the screenwriter thinking about their spouse as they write it out. It’s that sweet!

Rare is the movie that gets me happy-teary, but this is the second Reese Witherspoon movie to do it now. I really loved this one and it’s fine that Letterboxd doesn’t like it because, idk, more for me. That’s definitely how movies work.

(source: Sony Pictures)

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