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I Don’t Know How She Does It

September 10, 2011
I Don't Know How She Does It

Depending on the circles you travel in, you’ve heard plenty of talk about the plight of the working mother, and how women are subjected to all manner of pressures that men are exempt from. It was definitely an issue in academia when I lived there, since a woman’s primary child-rearing years are basically the same as tenure-track years and the effort to combine the two often ends in disaster, usually for the career. But I don’t think I’ve seen a movie take the subject on quite so directly before I Don’t Know How She Does It.

Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is the working mother here — an investment banker in Boston married to an architect just making his first faltering steps into launching his own firm, and trying to fit two small children into the mix. She’s beset on all sides by conflicting demands and very little in the way of real support or encouragement, and in a way the film’s greatest strength is the way it reifies and personalizes each of these pressures into the other characters. So let’s run down The List.

Obviously, Kate has her maternal responsibilities; her husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), does share them, but doesn’t worry nearly as urgently as she does; her daughter, Emily (Emma Rayne Lyle), resents her mother’s business travel; and her son, Ben (Theodore and Julius Goldberg, alternately), is growing up while her back is turned. She has some help from the babysitter, Paula (Jessica Szohr), who seems oblivious to the emotional side of Kate’s motherhood. But on the other hand there’s Kate’s mother-in-law, Marla (Jane Curtin), who feels Kate is giving her children short shrift, and doesn’t mind telling Kate so. And then there’s Wendy “I Do Everything Perfectly” Best (Busy Philipps), who seems to be married to a billionaire and has all the resources to do whatever she wants, but still finds time to badmouth Kate’s far-less-privileged mothering.

At work, Kate’s boss (Kelsey Grammar) is distant and unapproachable. Her colleague, Chris (Seth Meyers), evidently sloughs his share of parenting his four kids off onto his wife, leaving him free to schmooze with clients and jump at any moment of Kate’s weakness to claim credit for himself. Her assistant, Momo (Olivia Munn), is career-driven and rejects the very idea of children, not really comprehending why Kate bothers at all. Full disclosure: I’m given to sympathize with Momo as far as children go, which puts me at a bit of a disadvantage in the whole discussion. Oh, and her friend Allison (Christina Hendricks) seems to offer support, but in practice it’s mostly of the “it’s okay to do a half-assed job of everything to make ends meet” variety.

Anyway, things reach a crisis when Richard gets a major contract, requiring more work from him, but which could lessen the need for a second income. Meanwhile, one of Kate’s investment proposals gets some notice from Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) at the New York office, which requires even more work from Kate, along with a lot of travel. Jack has also checked out of the family game, but for slightly different reasons than Momo. Besides, nobody thinks there’s anything wrong with a man who forgoes children. Still, working with Jack puts pressures of its own on Kate.

The script comes to us from Aline Brosh McKenna, who also gave us The Devil Wears Prada and Morning Glory, but somehow it never quite clicks as well as they do. It might have to do with how clearly didactic and metonymic it is, but some of it also has to do with the acting. Don’t get me wrong; nothing in the film is actually bad, but it seems to be missing that jump from good to great that McKenna’s writing has pulled off before.

Parker is a perfectly decent actress — though not always believable as a mother after having played variations on Carrie Bradshaw for so long — and Kinnear has become your go-to guy if you want a generally nice, unassuming guy. Brosnan is better, but still underused from what we know he can do. The only character who really grabbed me was Momo, and frankly I think the direction her storyline takes is a bit of a cop-out, not to mention the fertile ground of how people react to her voluntary childlessness left fallow.

But again, it’s not really a bad movie. It has its charming moments, and there’s sure to be some self-recognition from anyone willing to examine themselves in the first place. And if a good-but-not-great story helps get these kinds of conversations started, I’ll be the last to argue with that.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: on its face it does pass, but not as well as you might expect. However if you read the “documentary interview” clips as these other women talking to a (female) interlocutor, then that makes a more comfortable margin.

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