When Reese Witherspoon briefly visits a psychiatrist played by Tony Shalhoub in the hopelessly muddled comedy/drama How Do You Know, the scene feels conspicuously redundant, since everyone in the film spends much of their time analyzing their own thoughts, words, and actions. Writer-director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good As It Gets) clearly believes the unexamined life is not worth living, so his characters never stop peering deeply into their navels as they examine the most fascinating subject in the world: themselves and their endlessly compelling emotions. Even the jock stud played by Owen Wilson behaves as if he was raised by a pack of feral psychiatrists. With so much pointless self-examination going on, is it any wonder the film never develops any forward momentum?
A radiant yet annoying Reese Witherspoon stars as a star softball player devastated by the news that she’s been cut from the U.S. Olympic team. With her professional life in freefall, Witherspoon begins dating Wilson, a major-league pitcher with a harem of accommodating Baseball Annies in every city and a bank account to rival the gross domestic product of a small nation. Wilson competes for Witherspoon’s affections with Paul Rudd, a salt-of-the-earth businessman in a parallel state of professional collapse after his domineering dad (Jack Nicholson) makes him the fall guy for corporate chicanery. Rudd and Wilson tend to elevate the material of everything they’re in; without their easygoing charm, How Do You Know would be dire instead of merely unconvincing and aggravating.
On their first date, Rudd fumbles verbally before Witherspoon insists that they simply enjoy their dinner in complete silence; rather than be repelled by Witherspoon’s rudeness, Rudd is instantly besotted, and spends the rest of the film wooing her. That’s How Do You Know in a nutshell: preposterous characters lurching through painfully contrived scenarios. It communicates solely in the touchy-feely vernacular of the therapist’s couch, yet Brooks’ grasp on human psychology feels fuzzy at best.