This brave odd duck of a romantic comedy from James L. Brooks strays as far from a barrel of laughs as a writer/director formed by network television can get without losing his grip altogether. Reese Witherspoon stars in fetchingly scanty frocks as a pro athlete newly cut from her team, who has to choose between her sweetly clueless baseball-star squeeze (Owen Wilson) and George (Paul Rudd), a straight-arrow businessman upended by a federal investigation. The movie has its share of shameless shtick—Jack Nicholson is his usual mugging guilty pleasure as George's feckless dad—but its rhythms feel freshly loose, disjointed, and peppered with strategic silences or half-finished thoughts. The punch lines are few, there's not much mugging for the camera, and with Janusz Kaminski on board as cinematographer, How Do You Know actually looks like a rainy but warmly inviting downtown Washington, D.C., rather than the inside of a sitcom set. Uncertain though its box-office prospects may be, this strange little film deserves to be sent out to sea in a bottle so that future generations may take the measure of just how hair-raisingly indeterminate it was to live and love in early-21st-century America.
Brooks adds odd punctuation to Witherspoon and Rudd's natural charm.
Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., Dec. 17. Rated PG-13. 113 minutes.