Idiot Savant Online

John Lichman's third attempt at a personal blog and online savanting idiotic.

How Do You Know

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Dir. James L. Brooks


Punctuation is key when you want to understand How Do You Know. Mainly because that’ll be the joke that dawns on you while Paul Rudd hems and haws, Jack Nicholson raises his eyebrows, Reese Witherspoon gives a half-smirk and Owen Wilson will stop this sentence dead to remind you, “no, really. Punctuation. Because that last sentence ended in a period instead of a question mark. Like the title–you know, of the film? How Do You Know? See. There I used a question mark, but only because that was a question! I get points for that, right?”

In theory you expect more from James L. Brooks when this took a reported 20 years to prep for the screen. But How is important, since it plays extremely well on the language of America’s best kept secret: the nation’s capital. It throws an initial red herring out with “Arlington, Virginia” but the actual Do-ing hangs around the Chinatown/Navy Archives in Downtown DC before shifting over the Adams Morgan, played here in part to Brooks’ time lapse, as “slum city.”  George (Rudd) is a hapless nice guy who finds out from his father (Nicholson) that he’s being indicted by the Supreme Court for flimsy reasons that purely serve to introduce a relationship with Lisa (Witherspoon) who is a 31-year old Olympic Softball player cut from the 2011 team and floundering around a relationship with the baseball pitcher Matty (Wilson).

One argument for taking You so long is a lack of DC baseball team (Matty pitches for the Nationals, which is darkly ironic considering the recent Phoenix-like popularity of Nationals pitcher Adam Strasberg). But the heart of the film comes from Brooks’ characters: vapid, lifeless and occasionally insightful people whose lives are ruled by seemingly mundane jobs that can’t be clearly defined. It is, in all likelihood, the definition of the District. George can barely understand the “why” of his indictment and even when he learns the details, he can barely comprehend that–until ANOTHER reason is given. Lisa being a professional softball athlete ranks fairly high up in the “cinematic dream job” echelons, but works since jocks should only date jocks until they learn hapless nerds who look like Paul Rudd also happen to exist.

Most of what You Know is built tirelessly upon slapstick and fading cuts between glances, looks, glimpses, grins, smirks, smiles,winks and any other synonym of the previous terms I can’t think of. Perhaps this is a side-effect of spending so long in animation with The Simpsons, since the heavy-handedness of As Good As It Gets still glosses over any memory I should have of Spanglesh. And yet, there are no villains that You Know of are glorified. Matty isn’t a bad boyfriend or a jerk–he flies in Maine lobsters for Lisa’s birthday and gives her a watch “to show that we’re engaged to be engaged! You know, my father, he gave my mother a watch. Seven years later, they were engaged!”  There’s a touching bit of sentiment there that Brooks chooses not to demonize or improve, instead giving the spotlight to George and his inability to hammer out sentences without cutting himself off or making drinks so Rudd can pratfall like a master.

This is an ode to my Miss(ed) Washington DC. It feels good to say that after decades of films, songs and stories that are built upon the towering shadows of New York, the lingering haze of Los Angeles or the dusty plains of the Midwest. For once, there’s a film that accurately showcases the D6 to Sibley Hospital. I can’t ask for a better ode to the city I spent my youth riding in buses…even if it’s pretty fucking banal once you strip that allure away.


Written by john lichman

December 25, 2010 at 11:47 pm

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