When songmeister Irving Berlin penned "Puttin' on the Ritz" in 1929, there was only one hotel Ritz, and it was in Paris. The press tour for Columbia Pictures' romantic comedy How Do You Know (no question mark), opening today, took place at a more recent incarnation — the Ritz-Carlton on New York's Central Park South.
It was reason enough for me to journey to my hometown for the chance to see the movie and chat with the stars: Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, director James L. Brooks, and, lest I forget, one of his frequent collaborators, Jack Nicholson.
Jim and Jack hadn't worked together in some 12 years, since As Good As It Gets. Their other worthy projects included Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment. Both men should be familiar with the New York area; they're both Jersey boys, each with three Oscars, and Brooks has also racked up some 20 Emmys (not bad for a man whose early TV experience included a writing stint on My Mother the Car).
In their latest collaboration, Witherspoon plays a world-class athlete, a softball player who's gotten a little old and is cut from her team. She begins a fling with Wilson's character, a major-league baseball pitcher and self-centered ladies' man. Rudd is a straight-arrow businessman who has a complicated relationship with his father (Nicholson). He goes on a blind date with Witherspoon, and, as expected, rom-com hijinks ensue.
Nicholson does not talk to TV press, but he sat down and visited with us radio, print, and online-journalist types, along with his costars and Brooks, who not only directed, but also wrote the screenplay and produced the movie.
Of working with Brooks, Nicholson said "He's a true friend and one of the best screenwriters around. A couple of Oscars didn't hurt . . . it cemented the relationship. That's how you know you're in love. He always casts wonderful actors. Look at us."
As for what's still thrilling for him about the business after 50 years of making movies, he said it's the "travel, beautiful women, excellent compatriots, drinking pals."
Rudd spoke about how his character's life is falling apart, but he still tries to conduct himself with some dignity. "It's an old-fashioned character, like someone from the 1940s. You don't see that very much these days, and I loved that."
Nicholson chimed in, "That's my boy," and leaned over to give his screen-son a kiss on the cheek.
Witherspoon mentioned that she's often played women who talk a lot about their romantic troubles, but this character keeps things inside. At one point in the movie she tells Wilson's character, "If I wake up in the middle of the night and start crying, just ignore me, please!"
What woman would ever say that in real life, she wondered? Owen joked it's why his character fell for her — so droll.
When asked about real-life rivalries, Owen mentioned his older brother, Luke Wilson, also a well-known actor. The two were raised in Texas with a love of baseball, but Luke was the more gifted athlete. Much later in life after both became famous, Owen threw out the first pitch at an Orioles game — not from the pitcher's mound, mind you — he just kind of lobbed it in.
Brother Luke saw the effort on ESPN. To add insult to injury, when Luke later threw out the first pitch at a Rangers game, he threw it hard for a perfect strike, spurring the Rangers announcer to ask if it was too late to recruit Luke for the team.
The reporter who had asked the question got them back on track, explaining that he was more interested in romantic rivalries. Poor Owen's response? "Well, my older brother again, actually . . ."
When it came to real-life first date stories, Rudd triumphantly trumped his co-stars. While Nicholson admitted he couldn't "remember back that far," and Witherspoon lamented once having her grammar corrected, Rudd related a double-date story that brought the proceedings to a hilarious halt.
Years ago (he's married with a kid now), he and a friend took out two women. The guys wanted to impress the gals and make themselves laugh in the meantime. The group were all walking along and Rudd's friend kicked his shoe about 30 feet in the air. Rudd responded, naturally, by leaping over a mailbox, and so on. The girls didn't find any of this remotely amusing, but things continued to escalate.
After the date, Rudd drove everyone home in an old door-less Jeep. "I was talking to my date, and I thought it would be funny, in the middle of the conversation, to jump out of the Jeep and run alongside and keep the conversation going as if everything were normal. But I didn't take into account that when you're going slowly in a car, it's still really fast.
So I jumped out and fell so hard on the road that I ripped my jeans, cut up my hands, and I felt the tire whoosh past my head, and I looked up, and in a split second the Jeep was already 50 feet in front of me, heading towards a tree. Everyone was completely shell-shocked, and I felt so stupid that we drove home in silence. And that was the only date I ever had with that girl."
The room was still in hysterics when I asked the next question. "You've all been in the business for a long time — Jack and Jim, a really, really long time — What advice were you given early in your careers that turned out to be either really right or really wrong?"
"It depends on what you mean by 'early,'" Nicholson drawled.
For her part, Witherspoon admitted that one singing evaluation coach told her, "Whatever you do, don't sing." She had been going to summer camp in the Catskills back when her desire was to be "a Broadway kid." Years later she would sing, of course, as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, a role that won her an Academy Award. So much for that advice.
There was a lot more from this crazy group, but I'm going to give The Man the last word.
When Jack Nicholson was asked how he spends his free time, he said: "I get up around noon, play a little golf, talk on the phone a lot to my two kids in college, see my pals, ahem, chase women around, ahem, not too much . . . talk to my congressman, go to funerals."
And what about keeping up with the Lakers?
"That's more of a job."