Bob's Take: Brooks brings his triple talents to big screen again

Here comes a powerhouse weekend of movie openings, including two sure-fire Oscar contenders: “The Fighter,” a boxing biopic starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale; and “Black Swan,” a dark drama about a mentally unbalanced ballerina, starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Sci-fi fantasy fans can’t wait for “Tron: Legacy,” sequel to a 1982 cult hit starring Jeff Bridges.

But, perhaps strangely, the movie I’m most looking forward to seeing this weekend has the least buzz. It’s “How Do You Know,” a romantic comedy starring Paul Rudd, Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson.

Those appealing stars aren’t the primary reason I want to see “How Do You Know.” The reason is James L. Brooks.

Only one man in the history of the Academy Awards has won Oscars for single-handedly directing, writing and producing a movie that won best picture. (Six other triple winners had collaborators.) James L. Brooks did it with his directing debut, “Terms of Endearment” in 1983.

Two more movies Brooks produced, directed and wrote or co-wrote, “Broadcast News” in 1987 and “As Good as It Gets” in 1997, earned nominations for best picture and best screenplay.

He’s only done triple duty (written, directed, produced) on six movies. The others are “I’ll Do Anything,” a box-office flop that began as a musical but was released with nearly all the music cut; “Spanglish,” a movie I think was underrated in which Adam Sandler falls for his housekeeper after his neurotic wife, Tea Leoni, cheats on him; and “How Do You Know,” which opens here Friday.

The reason you may not have heard much about Brooks’ latest is that he has been unusually secretive since early bad press on “I’ll Do Anything” burned him badly. “How Do You Know” finished filming about a year ago, yet it took months before industry press could finally report a title and at least some information about the plot.

Witherspoon plays a pro softball player and two-time Olympian who is feeling a bit past her prime at age 27. On the worst day of her life, she meets a guy who is also experiencing the worst day in his life.

Paul Rudd plays George, a corporate executive whose father (Nicholson) informs him that he (George) is about to be indicted.

Soon Rudd finds himself competing for Witherspoon’s affections with a pro baseball pitcher played by Owen Wilson.

So why am I so eager to see this movie?

Because when James L. Brooks writes a romantic comedy, it’s about more than tripping laughs. In this case, he wanted to write about a female athlete. And he was intrigued by the idea that business executives are sometimes held accountable for corporate behavior that they know nothing about.

Brooks has a sharp wit and an acerbic sense of humor. He researches his topics exhaustively. His focus is always on character, and he brings a sense of realism to the story that is almost entirely lost in today’s comedic films.

Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, perhaps said it best as quoted in “Variety” not long ago. “No one captures the messiness, the frailty or the integrity of humanity with the kind of wit and affection Jim Brooks does.”

While he has a penchant for obsessive-compulsives in his scripts, Brooks also writes characters who have character.

“I had a marketing idea that everybody hated,” he once said, “that decency is sexy.”

His movies are about the comfort and joy we derive from friends and co-workers, the puncturing of excessive ego and the tests of adversity life inevitably brings us all.

“I think you have a pact with an audience on every picture, and I think the pact is to try to be truthful and to be real,” he said.

He’s that rare writer-director who has handled movies and television with equal success. His writing, directing and producing credits on television include landmark character-driven series like “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Taxi,” “The Simpsons,” “Lou Grant” and “Room 222.” He has won more prime-time Emmys than anyone else in television history, with 47 nominations and 20 wins.

He began his writing career at CBS News from 1964-66, which is why “Broadcast News,” “Mary Tyler Moore” and “Lou Grant” were all set in newsrooms.

I like to think of Brooks the director as the George Cukor of his day, only better. He’s not afraid of sentiment, but he’s driven to ground those stories in reality.

We’ll soon know whether Brooks, who is vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is again in the mix of award season with “How Do You Know.”

Either way I’ll remain a fan of his brand of comedy — character-driven stories that are about something more than getting laughs, that touch on the human frailty we all know so well.


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