The Columbia Pictures lot here is decked with poster art for movies due in the coming months.
Bright red graphics promise a new version of “The Karate Kid,” with Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s son, Jaden. Angelina Jolie peers through the title of her action-thriller “Salt.” Letters made of pasta, prayer beads and flowers advertise Julia Roberts in “Eat, Pray, Love.”
But as of last week there was still no poster in the studio’s central walkway for perhaps the most closely guarded of Columbia’s movies this year.
In an era of cut-price filmmaking, the picture in question has an unusually full roster of well-paid stars: Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. And while the film business prefers sequels and pop adaptations, and has been shying away from such expensive, star-driven vehicles, this movie tells a complicated, original story about people who might be funny enough, in their own troubled way, to remind Hollywood that it is O.K., occasionally, to buck the trends.
Until recently the project was known publicly as “James L. Brooks Untitled,” Mr. Brooks being the gray-bearded writer-director behind the film. Word is he has decided to use an earlier working title, the stubbornly low-concept: “How Do You Know.”
It is a question without a question mark. Which pretty much sums up Mr. Brooks, a creator of television hits like “The Simpsons” and “Taxi,” who has built an intermittent filmmaking career on near-obsessive observations of the human condition — with laughs. By and large the combination has worked.
To date Mr. Brooks has directed just five films, beginning with “Terms of Endearment” in 1983. That one and two others, “Broadcast News,” a triangle set in the news business, and “As Good as It Gets,” in which Jack Nicholson played the crustiest of curmudgeons, were best picture nominees. “Terms of Endearment” was not only a winner, but also gave Mr. Brooks the rare distinction of picking up separate Oscars as the writer, director and producer of the same film.
Twice Mr. Brooks has missed.
“I’ll Do Anything,” about a struggling actor, started out as a musical but eventually had its elaborate dance numbers stripped out before flopping for Columbia in 1994. And “Spanglish,” in which Adam Sandler played a celebrity chef with a personal life in which some viewers found traces of Mr. Brooks’ divorce, then recent, did poorly in the United States and even worse abroad, when Columbia released it in 2004.
Approached last week , Mr. Brooks and producers of “How Do You Know” said it was too soon to discuss a film that is still being cut with the help of an editor, Richard Marks, with whom Mr. Brooks has long collaborated.
Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Columbia’s parent, Sony Pictures, said in an recent e-mail message that she was quick to sign on when she learned that Mr. Brooks, who for years has based his production company at her studio, planned to write a romance.
“No one captures the messiness, the frailty or the integrity of humanity with the kind of wit and affection Jim Brooks does,” Ms. Pascal wrote.
The master of a tragicomic mélange that has come to be known as “dramedy,” Mr. Brooks generally avoids the crude but effective humor of a Judd Apatow (“Funny People,” “Knocked Up,”) or the (for many, welcome) repetitiveness of a Woody Allen (“Whatever Works,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”).
Instead Mr. Brooks bores into his movies with a ferocious reportorial drive that takes him, sometimes for years, into the lives, both personal and professional, of others.
“How Do You Know” started as long as five years ago, when Mr. Brooks — who is known in these parts as the creator of a “Panic Attack!” cheer for his daughter’s soccer team — became fixed on the notion of making a film about a young female athlete.
Not untypically, he spent hundreds of hours interviewing women who excelled in various sports before settling on softball as good cinematic turf, according to people who worked on “How Do You Know” and spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid conflict with studio executives and others.
The plot is rooted in an encounter between two people who meet on the worst night of their respective lives.
Early on, Mr. Brooks became convinced that only Ms. Witherspoon could play his lead character, Lisa Jorgenson, who, at 27, is just past her sporting prime. Fortunately Ms. Witherspoon shared his conviction: she spent a year doing three-hour daily workouts to prepare for the role.
Along the way Mr. Brooks became fascinated by the dilemmas of contemporary business executives, who are sometimes held accountable by the law for corporate behavior of which they may not even be aware. This brought new research into the lives of people who run companies, work for the Justice Department, or, in at least one case, have spent time in jail.
From that slowly cooked stew came two new characters, one of whom is now played by Mr. Rudd, the other by Jack Nicholson — a Brooks regular who took the role only after Bill Murray, the first choice, declined.
To complicate Lisa’s love life, Mr. Brooks created a professional baseball pitcher, now played by Mr. Wilson.
Mr. Brooks, famously private, disclosed little about the project, which was widely described in news reports as a romantic comedy set in the world of baseball. But the sport only occasionally figures in a film that is actually about people trying to figure out exactly what, for each of them, matters most.
Mr. Brooks began shooting last summer in Washington and Philadelphia with a team of producers that includes Julie Ansell, who is the president for motion pictures of his Gracie Films; Laurence Mark, who was recently a producer of “Julie & Julia” and worked with him on “As Good as It Gets” and other movies; and Paula Weinstein, a film veteran whose credits include “Blood Diamond.”
Even as “How Do You Know” was getting started, Columbia pulled the plug on its planned production of “Moneyball,” a baseball-theme movie that was to have been directed by Steven Soderbergh with Brad Pitt in the lead role. That abrupt move underscored Hollywood’s skittishness about relying on sophisticated pictures from even the biggest stars and most seasoned filmmakers at a time when home video revenue is falling, and 3-D events are taking control of the box-office.
With “How Do You Know,” incentives from Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia helped pay for a relatively expensive enterprise — Columbia executives declined to provide a budget figure — whose release on Dec. 17 will test the audience appetite for story-driven, star-heavy films.
The poster and other marketing tools for Mr. Brooks’s movie remain no small issue. Columbia will be relying on Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Wilson to capture an American audience that is considerably younger than Mr. Brooks, who will turn 70 in May.
At the same time the studio will look particularly to Mr. Nicholson for appeal to foreign viewers who almost completely eluded “Spanglish,” the title of which simply did not translate in countries around the world.
Things might work out. But, as Mr. Brooks would say, how do you know?