A poster child for First World Problems syndrome, I Don't Know How She Does It asks moviegoers to invest in the trials and tribulations of a well-off investment manager who shares a lovely Boston townhouse with her architect husband, their two young children (the eldest of whom attends private school) and a part-time nanny to boot. Considering the troubled state of the economy these days, the amount of privilege on display might be too big a hurdle for some viewers to get over. At the same time though, it's worth remembering that families like this one do still exist in America (in smaller numbers, to be sure) and some of the challenges this particular character faces -- including juggling work and family time, making her marriage work and being there for the kids when they need her -- cut across social and economic divides. Would a movie about an exhausted mom forced to work two jobs in order to support her malnourished kids and out-of-work husband whose unemployment benefits just expired be a more up-to-the-minute reflection of what's going on in the country right now? Of course, but good luck trying to get a major Hollywood studio to greenlight it. If you're in the market for that kind of movie, you're better off waiting until Sundance comes around in January.
So don't dislike I Don't Know How She Does It purely because its characters reside in a vastly different income tax bracket. Dislike it because it strands a good cast and some well-observed moments of social commentary in a movie that ultimately embraces the same fantasy it supposedly set out to critique. Early on in the film, we're told that our heroine Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker, back in Carrie Bradshaw mode complete with pithy narration) had managed to balance her career and family for years until she hit a series of obstacles that almost knocked her flat. 90 minutes later as the credits rolled, I was still waiting to find out what exactly those obstacles were. It's not the movie completely lacks conflict -- it's that the conflicts that do crop up never seems to have a lasting impact on the characters.
For example, Kate mistakenly sends an innuendo-laced e-mail to a senior colleague in New York, Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan)... and she gets a shot at a big career opportunity anyway. Kate is stuck at work making her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is late for a dinner appointment, so he books a babysitter they haven't used before... and their kids get through the night just fine. While working with Jack on a major business proposal, Kate feels the crackle of romantic chemistry... and studiously avoids indulging it. As much as the movie insists that her life is approaching a breaking point, it never really pushes her that close to the edge. And at the end of this supposed "rough patch," not only are her circumstances unchanged, they've actually improved tenfold. I'm only mildly kidding about this, but you could watch the first five minutes of the film, go for an extended snack and bathroom break, and then return in time to watch the last scene and you wouldn't have missed a thing, at least as far as character development goes anyway.
I Don't Know How She Does It is based on a best-selling book by British author Allison Pearson and it's very possible that the emotional meat of the story remained behind on the page. All we get in the screen version is gloss, although there are a few scenes where reality almost breaks through. And I'm not talking about the random faux-documentary sequences where the characters talk to the camera about Kate. (Not only do these scenes play like pale imitations of The Office and Modern Family, they don't make a lick of sense -- who the heck are these folks supposed to be talking to, anyway? No documentary filmmaker in their right mind would want to make a film about a person as boring as Kate.)
No, the moments that ring truest are Kate's guilty expression whenever she has to tell her daughter that Mommy's leaving town for another business trip (Parker is at her best in these scenes, when she's forced to drop the broad comic schtick and just react in the moment), Richard's mixture of admiration and frustration at his wife's packed schedule and Kate venting her frustrations about being a woman in a male-dominated workplace with her equally harried single mom pal, Allison (Christina Hendricks, who is so engaging -- and yes, stunning -- in the film, you kinda wish she was the main character). Ex-Attack of the Show host Olivia Munn also contributes some of the movie's funniest and most honest bits of dialogue as Kate's career-minded co-worker Momo, who insists over and over again that having a child is the furthest thing from her mind. (It's frustrating that the film goes on to betray Momo for expressing these entirely legitimate feelings, first by depicting her as being somehow deficient for not wanting to be a mom and then getting her knocked up by an unseen lover and opting to keep the baby at Kate's insistence. That gave me yet another reason to miss Friday Night Lights, which tackled the subject of women's reproductive choices with a courage that most contemporary movies lack.) While the film strives to accurately depict the juggling act working moms perform every day, it ends up talking down to the very audience it wants to celebrate.
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