REVIEW: I Don't Know How She Does It Has Plenty of Fear and Loathing to Go Around
The title phrase of I Don't Know How She Does It is lobbed repeatedly at intrepid working mom heroine Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker, who also provides a Sex and the City-style pontifical voiceover) throughout this alleged comedy, sometimes in celebration, sometimes out of envy or condescension. Inherent in it is a swirl of self-doubt and competition. To be a mother, director Douglas McGrath's film suggests, is to be in the constant grip of guilt and judgment, worried that you're not giving enough, convinced that others are doing things better or more correctly than you, soothed when they appear to be doing worse.
For Kate, who works at a Boston hedge fund, this sense of not measuring up comes from multiple directions. At home, she has to rely on a nanny (Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr) to assist with care of her two kids, toddler Ben and 6-year-old Emily; she falls asleep when she's supposed to be canoodling with her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear); and she resorts to (gasp!) using a store-bought pie for her daughter's school bake sale. At the office, she struggles to compete with coworkers (including a smarmy rival played by Seth Meyers) who are made never late because they had to drop their kids off at school, and to manage a demanding boss (Kelsey Grammer) who doesn't want to hear that she already has plans with her family on Saturday and can't fly to Atlanta for a meeting.
I Don't Know How She Does It is supposed to be a celebration of a woman trying to balance the high-powered job she loves and is good at and the children she adores and wants to spend as much time with as possible -- and Parker sells this material for all it's worth, strenuously sparkling at the camera whenever possible. But for a supposedly strong character, Kate infuriatingly allows herself to be victimized by everyone around her, even her kids, who withhold affection when they feel she's gone too often because of work. Her husband scolds her for not pretending to laugh at his jokes, her coworker tries to steal her client when she takes a few days off for Thanksgiving, her nanny is late every morning, and when she finally lands the possibility of setting up a new fund, she thanks the man who OK-ed it, Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), again and again as if he's done her a favor, until he actually asks her to stop. After a while, you stop hoping she'll tell her family to suck it up and watch some TV and then drink a bottle of rosé all by herself, and instead settle for wishing she'd develop a smidgen of self worth.
We're no longer in the Mad Men era (though Christina Hendricks does make an appearance, wasted in the role of Kate's sassy single-mom bestie), but postfeminist chick lit like the Allison Pearson novel on which this film is based can seem just as hard on women in new ways, the pressure and restrictions now applied from within or by other females. I Don't Know How She Does It's fundamental dilemma, one sidestepped at the film's happy end, is that you can't compete in a cutthroat 80-hour-a-week gig and still do all the things a full-time mom would in the raising of artisanal upper-middle children. The film never addresses why Kate is expected and expects to do just that, why she accepts being shamed, why, if she's the primary breadwinner in the household -- her husband is trying to get his own business of the ground -- she can't do some delegating and ask him to take care of the goddamn pie, since he has more time on his hands.
I Don't Know How She Does It's halfhearted stabs at comedy come in the form of mild slapstick (Kate gets caught on a video conference hiking up her tights, Kate gets lice from her kids and keeps scratching during an important meeting) and in lampooning the smug stay at home moms (the "momsters") who look down at Kate's frantic running around and who spend all day at the gym. In the faux doc-style interviews that punctuate the film, momster number one Wendy Best (Busy Philipps) sanctimoniously preens that unlike Kate, she would never leave for a business trip right after Thanksgiving dinner, that family is just too important to her. The character's so broad that to describe her as skewering a type seems generous, but the point is clear -- we're suppose to think the judgments she lays on Kate are ridiculous and lacking in empathy, that it's only her own life choices that seem right to her.
And yet I Don't Know How She Does It unforgivably does the same thing, when Kate's cold, highly competent underling Momo Hahn (played by Olivia Munn, and about an "h" away from a generic Asian stereotype), who insists she doesn't want to get married or have children, has a slip-up with her birth control and ends up pregnant. We don't know Momo's relationship status, she's obviously still got time and her career's of great importance to her, but when she tells Kate her situation, our heroine unctuously immediately advises her to have the baby. It's too much to expect a mainstream film to jeopardize potential audiences with a mention of the possibility of abortion these days, but to have one give its blessing to a character offering such an entitled suggestion as if the decision were that easy is incredibly off-putting. If this is how supposedly supportive characters act in the world of I Don't Know How She Does It, well, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce starts to look practically appealing. At least there the hostilities are open.