If Hollywood Reporter investigative hot-shot Kim Masters is reporting about the curiously high cost of making James L. BrooksHow Do You Know (i.e., $120 million not counting marketing), you can bet she’s not focusing on this 12.17 Sony release just to pass the time of day. She’s circling because she smells blood.

Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon in James L. Brooks’ How Do You Know.

It’s a Kim Masters “uh-oh” story, in other words, because this romantic dramedy has only just begun to be shown over the last few days (delaying press exposure is always a sign of concern), and because chattering naysayers are guessing that the probable box-office tally will be in the realm of Spanglish ($55 million worldwide) rather than that of Nancy MeyersIt’s Complicated ($220 million all in).

Why did this occasionally deft, not terrible, sometimes amusing but strangely artificial film cost $120 million? Talent. Reese Witherspoon got $15 million, Jack Nicholson pocketed $12 million, Brooks and Owen Wilson both earned $10 million (with Brooks expected to receive extra “backend” bucks for writing, producing and directing) and poor, bottom-of-the-totem-pole Paul Rudd took home a lousy $3 million.

Costs also mounted due to Brooks being a “slow and meticulous” worker, according to a production source, as well as a decision to reshoot the beginning and end of the film.

In short, it was apparently unwise of Sony honchos to have approved spending this much dough to make How Do You Know. The term that might best describe their reasoning might be “inexplicably detached.” As I watched the film, my feeling was that as charming as it sometimes is, How Do You Know is clearly not going to be an across-the-board hit and probably should have been brought in for under $50 million, and even then it might not have broken even.

The word to all the agents and managers should have been “we love Brooks and are committed to keeping his flame burning, but it’s not the ’80s or the ’90s any more and we have to face facts and work within the realistic financial realm that his movies now reside in — they’re now labors of love. James L. Brooks used to be a gold-seal brand, but he’s no longer the person he once was. None of us are. The fact is that Jim has, financially-speaking, become a kind of hand-to-mouth indie-level guy, in a sense. GenY and younger GenX audiences don’t know or care who he is, and Spanglish was a turd. So if you love and believe in Jim, as we do, accept back-end participation deals with next to nothing upfront, and then we can all hug each other and move forward and make this movie and hope for the best. Oh, and Jim? That goes for you too.”

I need to underline again that while much of How Do You Know feels oddly inert and sound-stage artificial, it does deliver here and there and is not, by my yardstick, calamitously bad. As I said yesterday, I can see a portion of the critical community being okay with it. But Brooks is clearly holding on to a compositional shooting aesthetic that used to be and no longer is. The world has moved on and he has not. Because of this older-filmmaker, shot-on-a-sound-stage, key-lighted-to-death quality, How Do You Know is going to be rejected, I’m presuming, by the under-40s and play only with the older GenX and boomer women and couples, if that.