James L. Brooks Gives Us The Real Deal

Director James L. Brooks and Kathryn Hahn on the set of How Do You Know,
starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson.
(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

The new romantic comedy How Do You Know stands out for many reasons. It is the first film from writer-director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, Terms Of Endearment) in six years. It is actor Reese Witherspoon’s first new live action film in two years. And it is a smart, unconventional tale of a romantic triangle — between a successful big league baseball player (Owen Wilson), a professional softball player (Witherspoon) facing an uncertain future and a sincere businessman (Paul Rudd) inexplicably being investigated by the federal government — that will resonate with those suffering in the Great Recession. I recently spoke with Brooks about the film for Movies.com, and he had many insightful thoughts to offer to A.D.D. as well about the film and his views on relationships.

The day after I saw the film, I was speaking to a friend of mine. She’s very tentative about getting back into dating because she hasn’t done it for a long time. She asks me questions like how will she know if she will encounter certain problems again or when she is going to find the right person? I feel that every relationship is kind of dysfunctional and every family is kind of dysfunctional, it just depends on how much you can deal with. You have embraced this notion throughout your film and television work. I’m curious as to when you first did and if you have changed your view on this?
I’ll tell you a story that happened in my life to tell her. It was a night here in New York, and it was decades ago, but I was at a party and couldn’t handle it, so I went outside on the terrace. There was an overhang, it was raining and I was looking inside at all those people at the party I was outside of. It was exactly what you think. It’s a guy standing in the rain looking at a party that he can’t be a part of. I sat there for quite some time, and then when I turned around there were 12 of us outside looking inside at the party. So I think that’s the deal.

Softball player Reese Witherspoon and beleagured businessman Paul Rudd
face romantic and economic uncertainty.
(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

My favorite part of the film is the scene where George [Paul Rudd] is videotaping a very poignant moment. Time Out New York recently had a cover story on social media and how it is altering the lives of New Yorkers, and how many New Yorkers have become tourists in their own lives. Were you thinking about such ideas when you were writing that scene?
I guess, in a way. Somebody else talked about the cell phone use in [the film]. You say “father” and “son” into a machine instead of to a person. I recently tweeted, “Does everybody appear happier when they tweet than they are in life? And is that a good thing?” And it’s true. When I tweet I seem like I’m somebody who has my life together in some way, and it’s in illusion. I think all of this encourages us in some way to live a lie. It’s the exact opposite of what letters used to be.

Paul Rudd has become known to many people for doing raunchy comedy. What was your inspiration to bring him into this project?
If you look at him in Knocked Up, he’s a pretty telltale guys who’s in an unhappy marriage. I think he does it all in this movie. I think he’s funny in every way possible, and I think he’s a true, original character. What I’ve been surprised at is — and there are men who identify with Owen [in this movie], and he does say things that as a man you wish you could get away with saying — how many guys pridefully say, “He reminds me of myself.” About George.

How Do You Know has some subtext about unemployment and our current political crisis right now. Many of characters fret over their future employment. Were you writing this while thinking about the recession? Has it resonated with you personally?
Very much for me. Everything that’s been going on, all the bad things going on, have been an attack on our personhoods. That kind of shark [played by Jack Nicholson] isn’t representative of a certain kind of American businessman. I think he’s typical. I am someone who’s obsessive about specifics and detail, and I couldn’t pick a business to put up front. Then I realized that it’s important that Jack’s character be representative of the whole breed. And also, I think that so much has gone wrong, and our trust has been eroded to such an extraordinary extent by the absence of real role models anyplace in our lives, that the last holdout is people needing each other and holding hands and taking it on together. I felt that very much when I wrote this.

Jack Nicholson and Paul Rudd face off as father and son
in the wake of a federal investigation into the family business.
(Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

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