Bad Movies Are Difficult to Review

Here’s a very short disclaimer: I’m not a movie reviewer in any sense of the word. When I watch movies, I pay attention to the writing first and the entertainment factor second. Forget all that other crap about the directing, special effects, soundtrack, cinematography – blech!

For girls’ night last night, three friends and I went to see the movie How Do You Know?, which looked cutesy and endearing in previews. People who don’t know me well don’t guess this about me, but I lean toward being a bit of a sap when it comes to movies and literature. I like a good romance, even when it’s on the fluffy side, and the fact that The Notebook is part of my movie collection is proof of that truth.

So even though How Do You Know? looked like it belonged more on the fluffy side of things than anywhere else, I was still looking forward to seeing it, if for no other reason than it was free and our only other option was Season of the Witch. (Has still nobody told Nicolas Cage that his career is a joke? Oh. Okay. My bad.)

First of all, before we get to my analysis, there was a less-than-incident outside the theater that I’d like to discuss for a second. I’m always amused by the male mentality that reveals itself around females clustered in groups of three or more. For some reason, they think it’s a good idea to throw out a generally flirtatious remark toward a group of women, like bait to a group of fish, and stand there, waiting for one of the girls to be stupid enough to bite. They probably even have vague fantasies about there being a general hullabaloo and scuffling among the targets themselves over which one gets to take the bait. The fault I find with this method lies in its insincerity. The idea of being content with “whichever one bites” is so teenagely hormonal that such behavior is unattractive, immature, and certainly inexcusable in males over the age of fourteen. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh. Eighteen. Okay, fine. Twenty-three. Sheez.

That being said, I won’t pretend that, when a scene like the one described above actually began to play out last night, it wasn’t completely flattering to feel as though a stranger was attracted to me (nottomentionmythreefriends). But feeling flattered is as far as it went. What I found amusing was that none of the four of us felt any desire to throw the guy a bone and at least acknowledge his attempt to initiate a flirtatious banter with one of us. We all kinda glanced once in his direction then turned away.

For my part, it had nothing to do with whether he was attractive. To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember if he was. It just didn’t occur to me that rewarding his courage with a smile or a return witticism was even an option. And I would venture a guess that that’s something akin to how the other girls felt too. Two of them are, after all, ineligible anyway. (Writing about it now, I find it strange that I didn’t recognize or seize the opportunity to flirt with a stranger. Usually I’m pretty on top of that game. Weird.)

Anyway, we went ahead with our ticket purchase and walked into the movie theater, snickering about the guy’s failed attempt. Shortly after, we sat through what, for me, ended up ranking number 2 in the running for most entertaining movie with the worst writing ever. (Thanks to my friendship with the one and only Greg White, the movie Troll 2 irrevocably holds the number-1 spot for that distinction.)

How Do You Know? stars Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson. Unless you saw Valentine’s Day* last year, you’d be surprised how a movie with such a stellar cast could still turn out to be so, so bad.

Well, here’s how. The movie seems to have been defined by unorganized scene structure, superfluous attention to detail, underdeveloped characters, unexplained story arcs, and disjointed plot points. My friend Rachel astutely conjectured at the end of the movie that some of the answers to our many questions probably lie in the scenes that got cut – a likely possibility that makes me want to see the movie again, on DVD, just so I can watch the deleted scenes and make some more sense out of the story. Because, as things stand without the option of viewing the deleted scenes, it’s difficult to give an accurate synopsis of the plot.

But here’s an attempt. Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an ambitious but hyper-self-critical 31-year-old professional softball player who gets cut from her team for being too old. Owen Wilson plays Matty, her professional-baseball-playing boyfriend, who struggles with the confines of conventional relationships but wants to improve because of his feelings for Lisa. And Paul Rudd plays George, a young entrepreneur whose company (and personal freedom) are in legal jeopardy, thanks to the underhanded dealings of his manipulative father (played by Jack Nicholson), whom George calls “an ethical mutant” at one point.

The three main characters get caught up in an odd love triangle, with George essentially falling for Lisa the first time he meets her; and Lisa and Matty clumsily navigating a relationship containing elements that are new to both of them (monogamy, for him; long-term commitment, for her). George’s life is messy because he is facing jail time, pending the results of the federal investigation into his company’s actions. Lisa’s life is messy because she’s undergoing a veritable identity crisis and attempting to discover who she is without professional softball, while inexplicably attempting a serious relationship with a guy for whom shallowness is second nature. Matty’s life is not really that messy.

I’m not a loyalist to Reese Witherspoon, but I don’t have anything against her either, so in general, I don’t have much to say about how well she acts (or doesn’t act) in this movie. But, as far as Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, this movie would not have been worth sitting through without their performances. They take poor writing and underdeveloped characters and turn them into something so entertaining to watch that I almost could not contain my laughter during the scenes in which they each – and sometimes both – appear. They both take their character interpretations to the absolute extremes required to make the movie remotely interesting, and, in Rudd’s case especially, this effort pays off.

Rudd hams it up so frivolously that a character who otherwise – on paper or played by anyone else – would be flat and devoid of personality is transformed into this stammering but determined, diffident but lovestruck, quirky but likable guy whom the audience ends up rooting for easily. After one particularly appreciative laugh escaped my lips in response to something Rudd had done onscreen, Laurey leaned over to me and said, “I know why you like him. He’s just like Chandler [on Friends]!” Laurey may have been right. Paul Rudd guest-starred on several episodes of that hallowed show, so he obviously possesses a fun-loving quality that enabled him to get along with the rest of the Friends cast at least reasonably well, or else they wouldn’t have brought him back in Season 9. His role as Phoebe’s boyfriend-eventually-husband put him on the map for me and has made me love almost any movie he appears in.

As for Owen Wilson, on paper, his character would appear to be the stereotypically clueless, shallow, been-around-the-block rich guy who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. But Wilson’s performance and interpretation of the role lend a depth and sensitivity to the script, ultimately instilling in Matty a redeemable quality that, in the end, leaves the viewers rooting for him too.

Unfortunately, the writing misses the mark as far as both character development and plot believability go. Movies are often required to rush some development due to the constrictions of a two-hour (or less) time frame. But this movie rushes all the wrong bits.

One of the first scenes throws the audience into the trenches with the character of George’s pregnant, unmarried office assistant, but because we have no context or explanation for her actions and not even a remote explanation of who this person even is, her motivations and reactions in this early scene lack meaning and import, and her appearance in the scene feels altogether unnecessary. As the movie progresses, there is not a single scene in which this character’s presence feels warranted.

Lisa (Witherspoon) is supposed to be ultra-dedicated to the sport of softball, but other than a couple of scenes near the opening credits, the only indication we get of her alleged dedication is her endless recitation of motivational phrases, some of them specific to athletics. The viewer is therefore left without adequate proof of Lisa’s love of the game.

George is tangled up in some sort of legal debacle with the company he runs, but it is never explained exactly what kind of trouble. There are only vague references made to subpoenas, pending indictments, and potential imprisonment, so that the viewer is left wondering what the heck could have possibly happened inside that company, a train of thought that ultimately serves only to distract the viewer from the thread of the main plot.

And Matty – well, he’s difficult to pin down. At different points throughout, he seems both sensitive and completely amoral. My best shot at summarizing him during the movie was when I leaned over toward Laurey and whispered, “So . . . he’s not a jerk, exactly. He’s just a man-whore.” She nodded in agreement.

George’s dad, like his assistant, appears to be a fairly unnecessary character. His appearances often feel rather like he is there only to provide comic relief or some sort of random plot diversion, which is only successful some of the time. Jack Nicholson, true to form, milks his opportunities richly in his attempts to steal the scenes he’s in, but (this time at least) his efforts are in vain. The familiar delivery of the Jack Nicholson one-liners just did not seem appropriate for this particular movie.

Thanks to Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd (and my employer, actually, for brandishing the lottery that brandished the gift card that brandished my movie ticket), I did not feel like this movie was a waste of my time, and I am even agreeable to the idea of watching it again, once it comes out on DVD. It gave me enough laughs that I honestly think I could stand to sit through it again. (Perhaps I might be able to piece together more of the plot too, who knows?)

But I wouldn’t recommend How Do You Know? to anyone who doesn’t expressly have an interest in both Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson – or, someone who doesn’t like to laugh at a bad movie just for being bad.

Funny thing about this post – I wrote it before going to bed last night and didn’t post it because I was having trouble keeping my thoughts together when going through the edit. I told myself it was just that I was too tired and that I would go over it again today when I was more awake. However, today the post feels just as piecemeal as it did last night, but I’ve concluded it’s an accurate representation of how it felt to watch this movie. So there you go.

*I say that because I really wanted to write that line, and Valentine’s Day was the only movie I could think of off the top of my head that had a pretty diverse and talented cast (or am I the only one who appreciates Anne Hathaway, Bradley Cooper, and Topher Grace?). But the truth is, I actually really enjoyed Valentine’s Day.
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2 Comments

Filed under movies, reviews

2 responses to “Bad Movies Are Difficult to Review

  1. Katie Knapp

    How dare you malign Nicolas Cage! He is a true and noble purveyor of the dramatic arts. His line delivery is flawlessly trite, every single time. Nobody has his record for oddly asymmetrical brooding looks. And no other actor manages to look quite that ridiculous when running away from whatever perceived threat is looming. No, Nic Cage is a thespian of the first order. You owe him your respect.

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