Lack of proper punctuation in the title aside, How Do You Know (a phrase that cannot possibly be anything other than a question, right?) features a love triangle of downright equilateral monotony. Even the characters are unable to work up any kind of enthusiasm over their trying romantic lives. After all the false starts and lapses in judgment that keep them apart, the ultimate victors at love catch each other’s eyes, smile, and show the full extent of their passion: They shrug at each other.

Yes, after two hours of flirting followed by difficult but necessary declarations of friendship, glances and smiles that say there’s something else happening between these two beyond those assertions of platonic feelings, and all the rest that comes with a clichéd “will they/won’t they” relationship, they raise their arms halfway up their torso. The looks on their respective face is less, “I love you, my darling, and I cannot stand to spend another moment without you in my arms,” and more, “Well, you’re better than the other guy.” It’s less, “Let us make up for the time we have lost and never let each other go,” and more, “I suppose settling is fine.”

They are dull people, these two, who spend more time wallowing in doubt about their failing careers (she’s a professional softball player, and he’s some big shot at some sort of company that’s about to be indicted for fraud — together, they’re a big, weeping pile of blah) than getting to know each other apart from the fact that they’re in a challenging time of change. They don’t even discuss their problems specifically until later in the movie, spending their first “date” sitting in complete silence over an early dinner. “That’s exactly what I needed,” he tells her, and it is, unfortunately, exactly what the movie needs, too — less talking.

For in that moment, there is a palpable connection between Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) and George (Paul Rudd). It happens with relative subtlety, when George notices that Lisa, who has tried to get George out of his funk with a few inspirational phrases (she has a mirror covered with them) and telling him to just shut up for, like, 30 minutes while they eat (but in a kinder way), suddenly appears sad. It’s the only way to describe the look; her face just drops (remember, I said relative subtlety). In that instant, he is outside of his own problems and wondering what is on this woman’s mind.

She, we know, didn’t make the cut of the United States softball league because she’s hit the ripe, old age of 31, and she’s also kind of, sort of dating Matty (Owen Wilson), a professional baseball player who keeps a drawer full of new toothbrushes in his bathroom and a cabinet full of changes of clothes for any overnight visitors he might have. She really dislikes his nonchalant attitude about women but wants to give him a chance because, well, there wouldn’t be conflict without him. He teaches her to have fun, so logically, they eventually move in together.

George, meanwhile, knows his life may be over with a potential prison sentence, as his father, Charles (Jack Nicholson), fills him in on the details hidden from George by the board of his former company.

The characters in writer/director James L. Brooks’ screenplay are essentially vessels to expound platitudes and metaphors. “Don’t drink to feel better,” Lisa tells George. “Only drink to feel even better”; “Fight low self-esteem,” Dad scolds. “Don’t give it the wheel”; “Bad days make good ones seem better,” Lisa pulls from her memory bank. This thing in life is like that, while that other problem is like this, they all say at some point.

There’s a pregnant character, too, so there’s little doubt from the moment George’s former assistant, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), appears on screen that there will be a scene with a newborn baby. The movie frustrates by not disappointing that assumption, and for added, obvious metaphorical points, her boyfriend (Lenny Venito) proposes, saying he loves Annie for the exact reasons that Lisa has said she doubts about love.

How Do You Know is trying stuff, made occasionally tolerable and even more rarely palatable by brief glimpses of charm from Witherspoon and especially Rudd. So it turns out that shrug at the end is appropriate.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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