James L. Brooks has made a nice career out of crafting films (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets) that find genuine humor in what would, in the real world, be almost excruciating circumstances.

How Do You Know is among his lightest movies to date (so much so that it comes this close to being a traditional romantic comedy), but it’s no less charming, no less funny, and, yes, just about as entertaining as anything on his resumé.

Reese Witherspoon is back after a two-plus year hiatus, playing Lisa, a world-class softball player. From what we gather, Lisa’s been the face of USA Softball for several years now, but since she’s pushing 30, her spot on the team is in jeopardy. To soothe her fears, she hooks up with Matty (Owen Wilson) an almost-infantile, self-congratulatory, professional baseballer. When she wakes to find he has an entire closet full of new, bubble-gum pink sweatshirts arranged by size, just in case any female house guests should need fresh attire, she begins to suspect she made a mistake. And then she finds out she didn’t make the team.

At the same time, woeful single-guy George (Paul Rudd) is learning that his company is the target of a federal investigation for Securities Fraud—the company that’s still lorded over by George’s volatile father, played by Jack Nicholson.

Obviously, George and Lisa are a match made in dysfunctional heaven.

If you’re a fan of James L. Brooks’ writing and directing, you’ll enjoy the quirky characters, the brutally honest dialogue, and the expert performances in How Do You Know. If you go expecting a cookie-cutter rom-com (the likes of which we usually find Ashton Kutcher’s name on) well… you’ll probably walk out of the theater halfway through.

Hopefully you’re squarely in the former camp, because How Do You Know is one of the freshest and most endearing films to hit screens in months.

Witherspoon couldn’t have picked a better return vehicle. Virtually every scene she’s in reminds us what a skilled actress she is, and it doesn’t hurt her that she’s never been more luminous on-screen. Everything about her performance, from the slightest of facial expressions to her tearful scene when she discovers she didn’t make the team, will make you grateful she’s back in the fold. She’s as charming as she’s ever been.

Rudd, likewise, has never had a better, more subtle (coincidence?) performance. He deftly shifts between neurotic head of a failing company to sheepish, infatuated schoolboy without even breaking a sweat. Wilson is hilarious as the clueless guy who argues that he should get special recognition because he’s ‘virtually’ monogamous with Lisa, and Nicholson is fantastic as a combination world’s worst father/world’s worst businessman.

How Do You Know is full of both tender moments (though nothing too sappy) and laugh-out-loud moments (though nothing even remotely goofy), and they come together for a very fun, very smart comedy… that also happens to be romantic.

3.5/5 stars