The fizzled "How Do You Know" is an object lesson in how not to use likable stars.
James L. Brooks (who certainly knows better) has a great cast - Jack Nicholson, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd - but arranges them strangely, so that each is stuck in his or her own walled-off corner of the movie.
The main spine of the story follows Witherspoon as Lisa, a confused 30-something who's choosing between two suitors, shallow millionaire ballplayer Matty (Wilson) and sincere-but-hapless businessman George (Rudd), who's being investigated by the feds.
You can feel that Brooks has teased up these story lines and worried over them nearly to death, yet everything feels underwrought.
Case in point: George is linked to some corporate-accounting scandal, but what? What is his business? What is the crime? The company seems to have four employees and a tiny office. There have been no federal prosecutions of the trillion-dollar, fraud-plagued banking/mortgage scandals, but the Justice Department is after this rinky-dink operation? Why?
The vagueness haunts Brooks' characters. Lisa is the sort of feisty, with-it, type-A female Brooks has loved since "Broadcast News," only here she's stricken with an inertia that's never really explained (witness the strange cameo for Tony Shalhoub as her would-be analyst).
In this limbo, she bounces back and forth between disparate men, and while individual moments work (Wilson struggles with monogamy, Rudd pines for it), there is no rhythm to adjoining scenes, no forward momentum to the movie. Characters disappear for long stretches, and even if the story inches forward, the movie languishes.
Where does Nicholson fit in? He doesn't. While the "romance" unfolds, Brooks builds a parallel story around George, who finds he must choose between loyalty to Dad (Nicholson) and his growing love for Reese. Nicholson sketches another irascible patriarch, and that's always a little fun, but it takes the movie nowhere.
Maybe the movie has nowhere to go. Brooks' Life-is-Messy, Love-Is-Where-You-Find-It themes are always a structural challenge, and here, that challenge seems to get the better of him.
Love, where you find it in "How Do You Know," is among the supporting players. Actress Kathryn Hahn has a substantial role as George's former secretary, still doting on him while managing an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.
When she gives birth, actor Lenny Venito appears to play her boyfriend, who explains why he hasn't had the courage to propose. He's terrific in this pop-up role.
For those few minutes, the movie is alive. The rest of the time, not so much.