Work/Life Unbalance

This career-woman fairytale condescends to its audience, even when it tries to flatter

Thwarted by the same awkward timing that zonked Confessions of a Shopaholic two years ago, just when shopaholics began to seem extra-heinous, the film version of I Don’t Know How She Does It doesn’t know how to do what I think it’s trying to do.

I think it’s trying to acknowledge the real-world pressures shaping millions of women’s work/life to-do lists.

When the investment firm wizard played by Sarah Jessica Parker tells a colleague she got into fund management because people today are “scared to death about their future,” it’s meant sincerely, and Parker—even in a disposable comedy with a pudding-like consistency and the aftertaste of something other than real sugar—does not oversell it.

Her comic and dramatic technique is formidable. If she can survive Did You Hear About the Morgans? and the second Sex and the City movie, she can survive anything.

Freely adapting Allison Pearson’s 2002 London-set best-seller, adjusted to Boston and New York locales and a tougher economy, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna has the devil’s own time juggling agendas. It’s the same for Kate Reddy, the Parker character, who must negotiate time-sucking work projects; a backbiting rival (Seth Meyers) and a demanding boss (Kelsey Grammer); the sweet attentions of a high-powered colleague played by Pierce Brosnan; and a tightly packed calendar involving two kids, a nanny and her super-easygoing-but-there’s-a-limit husband, an underemployed architect played by Greg Kinnear.

The movie concerns three especially chaotic months in Kate’s life. In addition to direct-address bits to the camera, the script relies largely on Kate’s musings in voice-over, whisking us back in spirit to the comparatively carefree days of Parker in Sex and the City (which, on television, let’s remember, was often wonderful).

But the comedy’s forced and rather forlorn in I Don’t Know How She Does It. We first see Kate, who’s Type-Triple-A, as she desperately repackages a store-bought pie for a bake sale to make it seem homemade. Old joke; no new spin. Each supporting character gets placed into her own little box, labeled “shrill, stay-at-home, exercise-mad mom” (Busy Philipps plays the queen of the elliptical machines) or “generically supportive best pal” (Christina Hendricks) or “workaholic assistant reminiscent of Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada (Olivia Munn as Kate’s driven aide-de-camp, Momo).

“The inside of a working woman’s mind,” one line goes, “is like the control tower at O’Hare Airport.” True, and yet doesn’t that sort of generica belong to the era of 9 to 5? I Don’t Know How She Does It condescends inadvertently to its female characters even as it flatters their juggling abilities. The story lacks the wit to say something about double standards or gender politics in a crummy economy. While on a business trip to Cleveland, Kate and the neutered version of Big played by Brosnan take a night off from their spreadsheets to go bowling with an alley full of working-class stiffs. (So that’s where the middle class went—Cleveland!) This bit has a strange aftertaste; it plays as a ploy to “humanize” the socioeconomically advantaged.

Also, for a movie largely about temptation, I Don’t Know How She Does It has a weirdly low sexual current. Whenever Kate and her husband argue about their dangerously low rate of intercourse or some other matter, the stakes seem low, the friction frictionless. The Brosnan character apparently has been keeping himself chaste all these years (since the loss of his wife) for That Girl—sorry, Carrie Bradshaw—sorry, Kate Reddy. I enjoy a lot of these performers. But performers can do only so much to specify what is not specific, or vivid. Near the end there’s a series of glimpses of Parker and Kinnear beaming (high-beaming, really) at each other from across a crowded room. As much as I like those two, even in reduced circumstances, those shots are enough to make you urp.

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