In writer/director James L. Brooks's latest film 'How Do You Know,' there's a lot more than a question mark missing. Brooks wrote snappy, smart dialogue for shows like 'Rhoda,' 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show' and 'Taxi' before writing and directing his first film, 'Terms of Endearment,' in 1983. 'Endearment' was a critical hit, and swept the top categories in the Oscars, including three for Brooks alone (best director, best picture, and best adapted screenplay). His next film, 'Broadcast News,' further established his big screen cred, with no little help from its three strong leads, Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks and William Hurt. Since then, his films have fallen into a sort of parody of themselves, with 'How Do You Know' the most plastic of them all.

There are certain lazy parallels to 'How Do You Know' and 'Broadcast News,' in that it's about two men -- one nebbishy and screwed-up, one blonde and glib and not that bright -- who are smitten with a woman who is tough and smart and sort of a basket case. However, 'News' had the benefit of fully developed characters, the aforementioned excellent cast, a dynamic plot that takes place in the newsroom, and a subtext about style over substance in media. 'How Do You Know' has an aimless athlete who was just kicked off her team for being too old, her friends-with-benefits athlete boytoy, and a random dweeb she is sort of fixed up with who happens to be in the middle of a federal investigation.



Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) finds herself at loose ends once she's canned from her team and decides that a simple physical relationship with baseball pitcher Matty (Owen Wilson) will do the trick. Somehow George (Paul Rudd) gets thrown into the mix, and Lisa spends the majority of the movie bouncing back and forth between them. Brooks's go-to man Jack Nicholson plays George's blowhard dad and boss, and looks like he's about to explode every time he tries to talk to his son without dropping the F bomb. I didn't think it was possible for Nicholson to play a more unlikeable character than Melvin in 'As Good As It Gets,' but I was wrong.

There's just something terribly off in 'How Do You Know.' Witherspoon is a smart, sharp comedic actress, but the majority of the film fixates on her giant blue eyes and their glimmers of ... what, exactly? Understanding? Her character sleepwalks between two equally unattractive admirers; her feelings for them are muddy, and both of them are dazzled by her for no apparent reason. When she first hooks up with Matty, she sees he has rows and rows of fresh toothbrushes and matching sweat suits for his one night stands -- he's just being a good host, he protests -- and while initially she stomps off in righteous anger, she comes back to tell Matty that she was wrong for expecting him to be something he's not and she apologizes for expecting more from him. He obviously cannot believe his luck and tells her she's his dream girl, and from the doofy smile on his face and glint in his eye, you can tell he's fallen in capital L love.

Yes, we'd all certainly live happier lives not expecting more from people than they want or can give to us, but the whole scene is so overwritten, clunky and leadenly acted that it seemed more likely that Lisa was going to take a slug at him instead. Rudd is everyone's favorite Everyman and should be able to pull off the furrowed-brow freak outs that the script calls for, but his overdone mannerisms and the lines he's saddled with sink him. The only person who comes out looking moderately well here is Wilson, whose soft-hearted but daft Matty is a take on his silly sensual ladykiller character in 'Zoolander.' Why anyone is in love with anyone else in this movie is totally beyond me.

In 'Broadcast News,' Albert Brooks's character Aaron describes how the devil will appear among us as a normal, decent person who "will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he'll get all the great women." While Aaron was describing his romantic and professional rival, he might as well have been describing 'How Do You Know.' There are no great women in 'How Do You Know,' at least not on par with Holly Hunter's Jane Craig, but as James L. Brooks descends from 'Terms of Endearment' to movies like 'Spanglish' and now this, it's clear to see just what Aaron meant about incrementally lowering standards being the work of the devil.