It’s fitting that a central character in “How Do You Know” pitches for the Washington Nationals. Like baseball’s perennial doormats, the latest romantic dramedy from Oscar-winning writer-director James L. Brooks languishes in a like-minded state of mediocrity.

It’s fitting that a central character in “How Do You Know” pitches for the Washington Nationals. Like baseball’s perennial doormats, the latest romantic dramedy from Oscar-winning writer-director James L. Brooks languishes in a like-minded state of mediocrity.


That’s just not good enough from the man who used to give us “As Good As It Gets.” And it’s certainly not what we’ve come to expect from his crop of high-priced free agents in Reese Witherspoon ($15 million), Jack Nicholson ($12 million), Owen Wilson ($10 million) and Paul Rudd (a relative steal at $3 million).


As the owners of the Yankees, Red Sox and Mets will tell you, big contracts don’t always yield MVP results. Same here, as Brooks repeatedly squanders the talents of his four all-stars by placing them in positions where they’re not comfortable. Sort of like Jacoby Ellsbury playing left instead of center.


The worst of these odd deployments is Witherspoon, a fine actress with all the tools, except for her one weakness: romantic comedy. She stinks at it like A-Rod would probably stink if called upon to pitch the ninth in a one-run game. She is, however, surprisingly believable in the role of Lisa, a tough and muscular second baseman with the U.S. National Women’s Softball Team.


As shown in an opening montage, softball has been Lisa’s life ever since she was old enough to lift a bat. But as she nears her 31st birthday, her career may be over, and questions of “what next?” begin to fill her one-track mind.


Given his age, 70, and old-fashioned values, Brooks’ answer of course is for her to find a man and pump out a kid. But that sort of subservient female thing just isn’t in Witherspoon’s wheelhouse. She’s more adept at playing women in control, women who know exactly what they want. Think of Tracy Flick in “Election,” Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” or her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line.”


Watching her try to squeeze her size-10 talent into a size-3 role is beyond painful; it’s sad. But Witherspoon, gamer that she is, exerts every effort to make Lisa more than just an object of beauty for Rudd’s recently indicted financial executive, George, and Wilson’s horn-dog relief pitcher, Matty, to relentlessly pursue.


Witherspoon practically screams out for Brooks to provide her character with more substance, but she’s almost always left on her own to flesh out a cipher defined only by her taste in men. Squandered is every opportunity to explore the grief Lisa must be experiencing after having her greatest love – softball – taken from her.


More to that point, how difficult is it for her to be dating a guy who is just entering his prime as a $14 million-per-year Major League pitcher for the Nationals? The subject isn’t even broached.


A similar problem plagues Rudd’s character, a guy so loyal to his narcissistic, corner-cutting dad (Nicholson) that he’s willing to take the rap for the old man’s corporate crimes and face up to three years in prison. That alone is enough material to fill an entire movie, but Brooks’ script pays it little more than cursory attention.


All you can do is sit there and shake your head while pondering how a guy who managed to wring so much depth, emotion and social commentary out of flicks like “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News” could become so lazy and uninspired. A lapse amplified by the knowledge that Brooks spent six long years and $100 million putting the movie together. Compare that to the similarly themed – and infinitely better – “Tiny Furniture,” which took that film’s creator, Lena Dunham, a mere three months and $50,000 to write, shoot and edit.


Dunham, though, is 24 and full of new ideas. Brooks is 70 and hopelessly out of touch with the real world. None of his characters remotely resembles a real person. They’re more like the fabrications of a bad sitcom writer. He’s also lost his knack for knowing when to say cut and when to let a scene linger long enough to savor. Too often he does the opposite of what the moment demands, thus making an already disjointed movie seem even more poorly paced and edited.


Amazingly, “How Do You Know” is nearly two hours, but says absolutely nothing about anything, including the characters, whose thoughts and motivations are almost as much a mystery at the end as they were at the start.


You are, however, quite familiar with all the romantic comedy clichés: the elegant dinners, the expensive clothes and the opulent lifestyles of the rich and clueless. In fact, the amount of excess on display, given the current times, is almost obscene enough to warrant an NC-17 rating.


At least one can take solace in the knowledge that Brooks and his foolish investors will ultimately pay the price when they – like the owners of the Nationals – watch their large investments evaporate in the form of millions of empty seats.


HOW DO YOU KNOW (PG-13 for language and sexual situations.) Cast includes Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson. Written and directed by James L. Brooks. 2 stars out of 4.