What I don't know: why these movies keep getting made. I Don't Know How She Does It is based on Allison Pearson's 2002 diaristic, comic bestseller and directed by Douglas McGrath. But its real auteur is screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, scripter of wan workplace romantic comedies such as the limp fashion-magazine satire The Devil Wears Prada and the TV-news-show time-passer Morning Glory. The heroines of those two films are single and ambitious and triumph both professionally and romantically. Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), the protagonist of I Don't Know How She Does It, must balance even more: a career in hedge fund managing, a spouse and two young kids. Workplace movies, McKenna is quoted as saying in a recent, favorable New York Times Magazine profile, "allow characters to really tell each other the truth." The screenwriter's latest project, however, is filled with lies.
We first meet Kate in the wee hours of the morning, as she returns from a business trip to her Boston brownstone. Still, there's work to be done: At 2 a.m., she jerry-rigs a deli-bought pie to look homemade for her kindergartener daughter's bake sale. Husband Richard (Greg Kinnear, nobly enduring) is hoping for some action in the marital bed. In both her home and work life, Kate must constantly anticipate needs and strive never to disappoint, impossible expectations that she tries to meet with ever detailed logistics — planning that becomes even more complicated when her job demands that she travel to New York frequently to work on a project with a colleague there, Jack (Pierce Brosnan).
How does Kate do it? She is strong, she is invincible, she has the same surname as the singer who made "I Am Woman" a hit. She is also played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a performer so aggressively determined to make us like her that no work-life conflicts in the film ever gain any traction; we're too distracted by the actress's manic tics (the head tilts, the popping of the wounded-deer eyes) to notice any real adversity. (The fact that SJP's constant voice-over in the film immediately recalls Sex and the City, in which Carrie's "job" as a journalist consisted of little more than filing a few bad puns a week, doesn't help matters.) The promises Kate must break to her six-year-old daughter before leaving their Back Bay home for yet another taxi ride to Logan Airport are simply moments for Parker to operate in the mode she knows best: desperate pleading.
Kate pleads, cajoles and apologizes a lot, though every time, she's quickly forgiven and surrounded by an army of endlessly understanding helpmeets. Richard, an architect with job concerns of his own, shows some pique when his wife can't make it through Thanksgiving dinner without checking her BlackBerry and a bit of insecurity over the amount of time Kate is spending with Jack. But nothing is so insurmountable that a cuddle on the couch watching His Girl Friday can't fix. (This nod to the 1940 Hawks screwball classic — a real workplace comedy — does further disservice to the film we're stuck watching.)
In a significant departure from Pearson's book, Kate doesn't have to make any real compromises to fulfill her husband's and children's needs and her own commitment to a job she loves; her seemingly obstinate boss becomes, in the end, as supportive and understanding as everyone else in her life. She does get it all, with Parker straining for maximum adorableness when she announces to her spouse her renewed determination to be there for her family: "I'll still be a mess, you know."
It's not the job of I Don't Know, built as a mass-market diversion, to proffer real solutions to intractable problems. But wouldn't the film serve its intended audience — moms who do it all — better with more messiness and less fantasy? (In another example of the movie's cracked reality, hedge fund managing is redeemed as a "helping" profession, aiding investors as they plan for retirement.)
What, for example, is the work-life balance like for Kate's friend Allison, a single mom and lawyer (played by Christina Hendricks, one of many excellent supporting actors who provide the film's only real pleasure)? That's avoided entirely, just as a sudden reversal of an earlier decision by Kate's solo, child-averse assistant Momo (Olivia Munn) sidesteps a difficult decision faced by millions of women. "Somehow, someway, someday things have to change," Kate gushes to Richard during her vow to focus on the family. I Don't Know blithely acknowledges the obvious while still perpetuating the impossible.
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