"How Do You Know" is a boring, inarticulate mess brightened only by the unfailing likability of Paul Rudd.
Indeed, when I saw that Rudd was in the cast along with Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson, I thought, "How could it be bad?"
Let me count the ways.
In this film publicity image released by Columbia Pictures, Owen Wilson, left, and Reese Witherspoon are shown in a scene from “How Do You Know.”
It's bad because no real tension is generated by the plight of Witherspoon's character, who can't choose between a major league pitcher (Wilson) and an exec (Rudd) who's been accused of corporate crimes he didn't commit.
It's bad because the pitcher is a shallow, narcissistic buffoon, and Witherspoon's feckless softball player isn't much more engaging - the more so because she feels attracted to such a dolt.
It's bad because writer-director James L. Brooks ought to know better. He gave us the crowd-pleasing "Terms of Endearment," the critically acclaimed "Broadcast News" and the Oscar-winning "As Good As It Gets."
I'm no admirer of "Terms" (which a friend justifiably dubbed "Tears of Exaggeration") - but Brooks' resume at least suggests that he knows how to connect with an audience.
No such luck on "How Do You Know."
It's bad because the film is rife with long, awkward scenes in which nothing is said that's worth hearing, and no real communication takes place - crowned by an appalling blind date in which the two strangers agree not to talk. For the entire meal.
It's bad because once Brooks finally manages a successful scene - a touching and well-acted bedside proposal in a hospital delivery ward - he can't resist destroying it afterward with clumsy bickering and unpleasantness.
It's bad because the dialog almost never works, highlighted by a record-breaking three F-bombs in a PG-13 movie (the normal limit is one or two) - and by flat, lifeless lines like these:
"I used to be a bartender, back when I was working my way through bartending."
"I just touched your leg."
"You look good. You look rested. But then, everyone I know looks rested." (What planet does Brooks live on? Do you know ANYONE who'd say this?)
"I'm anguishing in every way because of what you're going through."
"To be honest, the baby thing never, never " (yes, folks, that's absolutely all she has to say on the important subject of not wanting kids).
And this helpful tip on how guys can tell if "she's the one": "I figure I'm in love with somebody when I wear a condom with the other girls."
Can we please declare a moratorium on condom jokes in romantic comedies? Or perhaps just admit that "condom joke" is pretty much an oxymoron anyway?
Rudd makes a marvelously sympathetic straight man, yet even his character is problematic; initially we're told, rather than shown, what a good guy he is, and only later does Rudd's performance manage to bring this across convincingly. Worse yet, we never understand what crime he's been accused of, or how it was possible that he didn't know what was going on.
In some odd way, "How Do You Know" is both painfully silent and uncomfortably preachy; it doesn't know when to explain things and when to keep quiet; and it certainly doesn't clarify "how you know" when you're in love.
But it does show us what it's like to see a bad movie.