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How do you know when you’re watching a bad romantic comedy? When the male lead has to resort to tumbling down the stairs during a phone call to get a laugh, that’s a start.

When Jack Nicholson pops in to overact for a few scenes to punch his time card before he can go hit the Laker game, there’s another piece of evidence.

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When the normally adorable Reese Witherspoon contorts her personality into an unrelatable heroine, you’re getting warmer.

And finally, when you long for the exit sign more than you do for the characters to sweep each other away in a victorious, violin-swelling embrace, you know that you are not only a redneck and dumber than a fifth grader, but are, in fact, watching a bad romantic comedy.

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James L. Brooks, the once mesmerizing writer/director who delivered Terms of Endearment and As Good as it Gets, shows with this half-hearted, lifeless affair that he’s capable capable of a magnificent feat. Somehow he squanders the talents of a screen legend in Nicholson, a surefire cut-up in Owen Wilson and one of the most reliable comedic linchpins in Paul Rudd.

Witherspoon has been off her game for years now, unable/unwilling to reclaim her romantic comedy throne after becoming a Serious Actress in Walk the Line. Here she plays Lisa, an elite softball player who’s forced into retirement following her inability to make the national team.

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Little does Brooks seem to know that the joke is really on Lisa’s teammates, since softball has been eliminated as an Olympic sport.

Despondent, Lisa tries to get her life back together the only way a girl can – by latching on to whatever guys amble across her path, thus validating her dwindling sense of self-worth. Basically, this amounts to a horror movie for feminists.

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Lisa spends the entire movie bouncing back and forth between Matty (Wilson), the curiously old baseball player who is said to be the best in the game, and George (Rudd), an executive who has lost his girlfriend and home because he’s being investigated by the federal government. Nicholson plays George’s father, whose purpose is to hang out and wave his arms for a while so there’s another name to slap on the poster.

You’re supposed to root for Lisa to dump Matty and hook up with George, which she does, before moving back in with Matty. Then you root for her to do it again, and she complies. This process is every bit as exciting as it sounds.

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As the movie plays on, you grow more and more jealous of Nicholson’s character for staying out of it as much as possible. You long for the camera to switch to whatever he’s doing, even if it’s just sitting around doing crossword puzzles and making crank calls to Diane Keaton.

How do you know you’re watching How Do You Know? When you start dreaming of crossword puzzles and Diane Keaton.

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson. Written and directed by James L. Brooks. Rated PG-13. 115 minutes.
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