For a couple of decades, Oscar-winning writer/director James L. Brooks has waged a quiet war on the clichéd affirmations and stock redemption plots of movie romance. Since "Terms of Endearment" in 1983, he has pushed the boundaries of the genre toward gentle, semi-realistic humanism. His characters don't address one another with flowery eloquence; no one falls instantly in love with the right person at the right time. In Brooks' films, from the high of "Broadcast News" to the low of "Spanglish," love arrives in stuttering, uneasy fits and starts.

Well, two cheers for naturalism. His latest, "How Do You Know," is not a typical romantic comedy. It is not funny; it is not heartwarming. It has all the zesty champagne fizz of Pepto-Bismol.

For no particular reason, Reese Witherspoon plays a retired Olympic softball star looking for the next inning of her life; she has vague plans about school and getting married. She's stuck off-base between Owen Wilson, a sweet doofus baseball megastar, and Paul Rudd, a sincere nebbish recently ejected from the executive suite of his father's multinational company. The film is a male fairy tale in which a great woman is torn between a handsome prince who is rich, famous and gives her great sex and diamonds, and a rabbity little dip who's a great listener.

With its lack of direction and emotional depth, the stagebound film loses focus early and never regains it. What could have been a charming film about a guy with low self-esteem and a hopeless crush, becomes a mess of multiple story lines that amount to nothing. Rudd, Witherspoon and Wilson make a very artificial romantic triangle. Their lives overlap only because it is an unwritten law of the universe that rom-coms require a rivalry. The other problem with "How Do You Know" lies in its awkward pacing. The film is conversational and laid back in a bad way that encourages napping. Wilson redeems a few scenes with his mischievous twinkle, but the diffident Rudd and eye-rolling Witherspoon seem lost. Ending a three-year screen hiatus, Jack Nicholson contributes a harrumphing, arm-waving performance as Rudd's egocentric dad; he has never been worse.

Brooks, who is also the creative godfather of "The Simpsons," brings none of that series' satirical lunacy to this story. It's a teachy, helpy tract about the importance of getting our emotional lives in order. The levity-free screenplay feels as if it were created by someone who marinated overlong in psychotherapy. Every line of dialog sounds like dutiful shrink-speak about maturity and personal accountability. The script could have been written by Lisa Simpson.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186