How Do You Know: Well, I Like It

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David James / Sony Pictures / Reuters

Reese Witherspoon, left, and Paul Rudd in a scene from the Sony Pictures film How Do You Know

Hard to think it's been 40 years since Mary Richards got a job in the WJM newsroom after the most uncomfortable job interview ever. When the hard-driving boss Lou Grant goes for a flask in his desk drawer and offers her a drink, Mary replies brightly, "I'll have a brandy Alexander." Lou to Mary: "You've got spunk. I hate spunk!" That scene, from the first episode of the great seven-year Mary Tyler Moore sitcom, is taught in college comedy-writing classes. In its revelation of character through hostility, evasion and the wily banter of smart people, it's the TV equivalent of the opening conversation in The Social Network.

James L. Brooks, the guru of MTM, was just 30 when he and Allan Burns wrote that pilot script. Since then he's overseen Taxi and The Simpsons and written and directed a series of grownup comedy-dramas about sweetly needy neurotics: Terms of Endearment (five Oscars, including acting awards to Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson and three for Brooks as writer, director and producer), Broadcast News (seven nominations, no wins) and As Good as It Gets (Oscars for Nicholson and Helen Hunt). How Do You Know is Brooks' first film since 2004's Spanglish; without being great, it's still the flat-out finest romantic comedy of the year — unless you broaden that genre to include the movie about Mark Zuckerberg's electronic tryst with 500 million friends.

Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) is a professional softball player who, at 31, is cut from the team. Suddenly adrift from what she's dedicated virtually her whole life to excelling in, she falls into an affair with Matty (Owen Wilson), a Washington Nationals pitcher and sweet-natured stud who keeps a large closet full of nighties for his serial dates; Matty's notion of monogamy is expressed by a teammate who says, "I think I'm in love with somebody when I wear a condom with other girls." A friend gives Lisa's phone number to George (Paul Rudd), a middle-level exec in the Washington, D.C., business run by his father Charles (Nicholson). The night of Lisa and George's blind date, she's in the funk of rejection and he's just been told he may go to jail for some corporate malfeasance he had nothing to do with. The rest of the movie is a romantic obstacle course, with George having to get to Lisa and Lisa having to get over Matty.

Warning: a favorable review of How Do You Know may be a TIME exclusive, since the movie has received some unusually sharp notices. On IndieWire, Anne Thompson labeled it "a picture that will please no one" and "a career disaster for Reese Witherspoon" and, in the unkindest cut, compared the film invidiously to the middling-at-best comedies of Nancy Meyers (Something's Got to Give, The Holiday, It's Complicated). Brooks is known as the most fretful of comedy writers, taking years to worry his scripts into shape — this is just his sixth film as writer-director in almost three decades — and for believing that for all his achievements and acclaim, everything will turn out for the worst. Now he has reviews to validate his anxieties.

Yeah, well, I still like the film. I grant that it has flaws: it all but ignores what Lisa is to do with the rest of her life, aside from choosing which man she'll be with at the end of the picture; Nicholson, a late replacement for Bill Murray, goes way too choleric in closeup; and Rudd registers a little soft, and not nearly stunned or rancorous enough, for a guy who's been gobsmacked by fate. (In a way, How Do You Know, soft, thoughtful and amiable, is the movie version of George.) But I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with these people; if the film were a TV comedy series, they'd be most welcome in my house again next week. Witherspoon, sunny and stubborn, and Wilson, a charmingly goofball rascal, make for a nicely abrasive, oddly engaging couple. Brooks hasn't lost his gift for dreaming up heroes and heroines who worry amusingly and for creating a rom-com marplot — the other guy — who is attractive and seductive, pursuing his own understandable (if borderline amoral) logic.

In Broadcast News, an earlier story Brooks set in D.C. during the '80s, he used the same triangular character structure: a guy for whom success and women come easy (there the budding anchorman played by William Hurt), another man racked with insecurities (Albert Brooks' TV newswriter) and the bright, put-upon career woman who must choose between them (Holly Hunter's news producer). As Good as It Gets had a similar dramatis personae, except that the easygoing guy was gay. How Do You Know is not up there in Broadcast News' immortal empyrean, but it's close to the mismatched-trio comedy of As Good as It Gets. And at times it can synopsize the vectors of romance in the briefest of exchanges. Lisa and Matty have one — the essential man-woman debate — when she shouts, "Grow up!" and he snaps back, "No!" as if his core creed had been threatened. The flip side of that tension comes well into George's pursuit of Lisa. "Are you bored?" she asks, and he, smitten, replies, "Transfixed."

The value-added element in a Brooks movie is the characters' running commentary on their agitated lives. Lisa, so focused for ages on the discipline of sport, has not only missed marriage and motherhood but is suspicious of their importance: "When people tell me how in love they are, or how the baby is everything" — and she whispers conspiratorially — "I think they're pretending." George, in his darkest hour, feels at the bottom of his game. "Did you ever want to delete every sentence you've said even as you're saying them?" he wonders. Matty is rarely troubled by issues of self-esteem; he's had so many girls that when Lisa's outside his apartment door and says her name, he asks, "Could you narrow it down?" But even he can appreciate the bitterness of rejection: "Why do girls always look so pretty the minute they walk out on you?" To memorialize the moment, he takes a smart-phone photo of himself looking sad.

In MTM's third season, Brooks did a cameo as the rabbi who presides over the renewal of vows by the parents of Mary Richards' neighbor Rhoda Morgenstern. The writer-director often invests his scripts with the sort of advice a concerned clergyman might give the wandering faithful. He has three here: "Deny a voice to the thing that's falling apart." "We are just one small adjustment away from making our lives work." And, from a psychiatrist played by Tony Shalhoub, "Figure out what you want, and learn how to ask for it." I've thought about the last one and decided the learning-how-to-ask part is next to impossible. But that's Brooks for you — creating characters who, almost uniquely in modern romantic comedy, try to make themselves better people.

There's a scene in which George is called upon to make a toas. He raises his glass and says, in an awkward inspiration, "To people who make toasts!" In that spirit, I'll make one to How Do You Know: "To the year's loveliest unloved love story." And if you're going for another round, I'll have a brandy Alexander.