The more I think about the differences between James L Brooks‘ How Do You Know and Broadcast News, the more I shake my head in amazement. How could the same guy have directed and written something so smart and true 23-plus years ago and then make two 21st Century flops in a row, Spanglish and now this thing?
Obviously Brooks, 70, isn’t the same guy today as he was when he researched, wrote and directed Broadcast News, when he was in his mid to late 40s. It sounds cruel to say stuff like this, but most creative types experience peak periods of 10 or 20 years, and then they step off the treadmill. They go soft, age out, lose the mojo. Francis Coppola went through this syndrome. Vigor, vitality and being attuned to the culture don’t come easily at any age, but it’s really tough for older wealthy guys to hang on to it.
I only know that there isn’t a single scene in How Do You Know that’s nearly as good as the one above, and this is a relatively minor moment in Broadcast News . But the way Jack Nicholson slowly turns around and looks at the bespectacled news chief when the latter suggests that Nicholson could save a few newsroom colleagues from unemployment if “you knock a million or so off your salary” is classic.
The thing you just can’t buy in How Do You Know is Reese Witherspoon‘s interest in Owen Wilson‘s big-league pitcher, who’s obviously immature, selfish, a dog and more than a bit of an asshole. Wilson is such an absurdly bad boyfriend choice that Witherspoon’s decision to not only slam ham with the guy but move into his place kills whatever respect and/or empathy the audience might have had for her to begin with.
As I wrote on 12.9, How Do You Know “has some lines and little moments that work very nicely. It’s not my idea of a disaster — I can foresee a portion of the critics saying it’s okay — but my main impression was that of a very bizarre, strangely un-life-like film. The writing is simultaneously clever and constipated, and the lighting and the cinematography seem overly poised and prettified. It looks and feels like it’s happening in some kind of Hollywood fairyland that feels a lot like a sound-stage set (i.e., one that’s meant to simulate certain indoor settings in and around Washington, D.C.).
“It seems as if Brooks has entered his formalist, out-of-time, older-director phase. The look and tone and pacing of How Do You Know reminded me of the look and tone and pacing of Alfred Hitchcock‘s films after The Birds — the increasingly rigid and old-fogey-behind-the-camera feeling of Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Family Plot, etc. (Some believe that Frenzy was an exception; I don’t.) I’m talking about a phase in which a director is not only repeating the kind of brush strokes that felt fresher and less constipated 20, 25 or 30 years earlier, but emphasizing them so as to say ‘I know this may seem unnatural to some of you out there, but this is how I like to do things, no matter how stylistically out-of-touch this film may seem. This is me, take it or leave it.'”
One reason I feel that Witherspoon’s relationship with Wilson is difficult to swallow is that you don’t believe her character would have hot sex with anyone. That’s because Reese Witherspoon has never seemed believable as a naturally sexual being. To me, anyway.
Just as it’s difficult not to have erotic or sexual thoughts about certain actors and actresses, there are actors and actresses on the other side of the spectrum who seem antithetical to any kind of erotic allure or activity. You not only find it difficult to believe in their characters as sexual beings, but they themselves seem anti-sexual — the idea of any kind of physical intimacy seems unlikely or misguided or ill-considered. There are many, many actors and actresses who fall under the latter category (I always avoided any thoughts of John Candy having sex back in the ’80s), but How Do You Know convinced me that Reese Witherspoon is one of those no-sex-we’re-British types. And that’s fine. Not everyone is obliged to radiate smoldering hotness. It takes all sorts.