As goofily distinctive as its title is forgettably generic, How Do You Know, written and directed by James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets), is an undeniable mess. For all its rough patches, however, the film boasts the one element sorely missing from most Hollywood rom-coms: a pulse. Granted, the setup is boilerplate: perky young woman (Reese Witherspoon) must choose between womanizing, commitment-phobic star athlete (Owen Wilson) and sweetly neurotic nebbish (Paul Rudd). Toss in a gender-reversed Say Anything… subplot involving a federal investigation of the company founded by Rudd’s dad (Jack Nicholson), and Brooks has all of the genre’s bases covered—quite apropos for a movie in which two of the three main characters are professional baseball players.
And yet Brooks seems to be bizarrely, often thrillingly unaware of how rote his movie ought by rights to be. Early on, Rudd tumbles down a flight of stairs while talking on the phone to his secretary, then just gets up and continues the conversation with a brief laugh; it’s typical of the film that this moment has no narrative significance whatsoever—it just happens. Later on, Witherspoon visits a therapist (played by an unbilled Tony Shalhoub), immediately leaves, returns to ask him for one nugget of all-purpose advice, and upon receiving it, motors again, whereupon the movie promptly forgets that this exchange ever happened. Such randomness may frustrate those who like their movies machine-tooled, but it gives How Do You Know a novel, sometimes exhilarating sense of being reinvented on the fly, like a jazz musician riffing semi-recognizably on an old standard. Hollywood could use more messes like this one.