‘How Do You Know’ when a movie’s a flop: James Brooks loses his mojo


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James Brooks is one of the comedy gods, having brought us such brainy film delights as ‘Broadcast News’ and ‘Terms of Endearment,’ not to mention serving as a godfather to ‘The Simpsons’ and creator of such TV hits as ‘Taxi,’ ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ and ‘Lou Grant.’ But in Hollywood, even the gods finally lose their powers. And Brooks is about to take a nasty pratfall this weekend with the release of ‘How Do You Know,’ a romantic comedy that is barely romantic and rarely funny.

The film, which stars Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson and Owen Wilson, has been roasted by the critics -- it now has a 36 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which is pretty bad, considering that even the much-maligned ‘Burlesque’ earned a 38. In fact, the critical onslaught has been so withering that Sony Pictures is running full page ads for the film without any blurbs at all, which has got to be a first for Brooks, who could do no wrong with critics, at least until 2004’s ‘Spanglish,’ which also was a dud with both critics and audiences.


Even worse, for both Brooks and Sony, ‘How Do You Know,’ which box office pundits say could do less than $10 million in its opening weekend, will probably be an expensive flop. The film cost at least $100 million to make, with nearly half of that going to a trio of stars whose salary quotes are right up there with the Miami Heat’s fearsome threesome of LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. According to a post from the Hollywood Reporter, Witherspoon gets $15 million, Nicholson gets $12 million, Wilson gets $10 million, with another $10 million for Brooks. Paul Rudd, who also has a costarring role, was paid $3 million.

Although Sony is hoping the film might perform like Nancy Myers’ ‘It’s Complicated,’ outside experts predict the film’s box-office trajectory will much more closely resemble ‘Spanglish,’ which despite the presence of Adam Sandler opened to a wan $8.8 million on the same date in 2004, and went downhill from there, ending up only making $42 million in the US. It’s hard to imagine ‘How Do You Know’ doing any better, especially since it appeals to an older demographic, who actually read reviews.

The reviews have been dreadful, with the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern only devoting two paragraphs to the picture, saying ‘no need to belabor the awfulness of this film.’ Most studios, after the demise of ‘Spanglish,’ which cost $75 million to make, would never dream of giving a filmmaker, even one of Brooks’ pedigree, even more money on another stuffy romantic comedy. (When Clint Eastwood famously had to find outside money for ‘Mystic River,’ despite the filmmaker’s decades-long ties with Warners, it was because his previous film, ‘Blood Work,’ had been a flop.) But Sony’s Amy Pascal has staked her reputation on being the most talent-friendly studio chief in Hollywood, having successfully wooed everyone from Sandler and Will Smith to David Fincher to join her studio stable.

Pascal viewed Brooks in the same light, as the Sun King of comedy filmmakers. But at 70, Brooks is like the aging slugger who can’t get around on the fastball anymore -- he’s finally lost his comic mojo. When I saw ‘How Do You Know,’ I had the same reaction as Morgenstern, who said, ‘You watch it with a heavy heart, and sit through it like a stone.’ The characters were stick figures, the jokes were flat, the situations felt scarily insular. Everything about it felt self-absorbed and out of touch -- there was hardly a scene in the film that you couldn’t imagine having been shot 15 or 20 years ago.

As Todd McCarthy put it in the Hollywood Reporter, like ‘Spanglish,’ the new Brooks film ‘shares the same sense of separation from real life, of having been hatched in some west-of-the-405 bubble that’s raised its drawbridge to the outside world.’ It’s time Brooks got out of his comfort zone. His films used to have a wonderfully restless, neurotic energy, but ‘How Do You Know’ feels like it was phoned in from someone resting uncomfortably on his laurels.

-- Patrick Goldstein