I Don't Know How She Does It (United States, 2011)September 15, 2011
It's a challenge faced by every workaholic parent: balancing the time-sucking pressure of a high-profile job with the needs of a family. Because of societal expectations and traditional norms, women typically face more scrutiny and criticism than men when they fail to find the equilibrium point, and even those who do often endure bouts of guilt and perceived inadequacy. Is too much emphasis placed on "having it all?" Despite a sit-com tone and jokey manner, I Don't Know How She Does It is perceptive and honest when it comes to addressing these issues - primarily because both the novel's author, Allison Pearson, and the screenwriter, Aline Brosh McKenna, speak from personal experience. Director Doug McGrath's light approach to the material conveys the conflicting, dueling priorities without ever becoming too fluffy or too serious. I Don't Know How She Does It is a perfect example of a genre that was once referred to as the "dramedy."
As the movie begins, Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), the loving wife of Richard (Greg Kinnear) and the happy mother of two, has just returned to her Boston home from a business trip. She's a juggler, keeping Richard, her son, her daughter, her boss, and her co-workers all in the air at the same time. When an opportunity arises at work for her to achieve a meteoric rise by collaborating with New York bigshot Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), she jumps at it, despite the stress it places on her marriage. As a snide co-worker mentions, this will give her kids an opportunity to bond with their nanny. Richard is supportive to a point, but when Kate's job whisks her away from her family immediately after Thanksgiving dinner and forces her to break promises to her children, a rift begins to develop - one that isn't helped by a growing attraction between Kate and Jack.
Despite a healthy heaping of honesty, I Don't Know How She Does It is hamstrung by two problems, one of which is obvious and the other of which is more subtle. The unfortunate ending, which wallows in artifice, is superficial and saccharine, and unworthy of the material that precedes it. For roughly 70 minutes, I Don't Know How She Does It comes across as smart and witty, then it throws all that away in its quest for the perfect conclusion. "Perfect" in this case is synonymous with "fairy tale."
The casting of Sarah Jessica Parker, while understandable given her high favorability among the key demographic, is a mistake. Parker is too closely identified with her Sex and the City character, the self-centered, materialistic Carrie Bradshaw. And, although Parker is not Bradshaw, the typecasting has left her stained (not unlike William Shatner/Captain Kirk during the '70s and '80s). Bits of Carrie cling to Kate like lichen to rotting wood and it creates a mismatch. Kate is not supposed to be a clone of Carrie - their values and concerns are different. Yet Parker portrays Kate in much the same way she plays Carrie, forming a shrill and somewhat unlikeable personality. With Pierce Brosnan, we never once think of James Bond; would that his co-star was able to put aside her past as effectively.
The film's approach of providing tangential material works within the playful context established by the screenplay. There are voiceovers, instances in which a character (usually Kate) freezes everyone around her so she can address the audience directly, and man-on-the-street interviews with supporting characters. These techniques can grow old quickly, but I Don't Know How She Does It employs them sparingly enough that they don't wear out their welcome within the sparse span of 90 minutes that it takes the plot to unwind. They give the movie a loose, freewheeling feel that increases its seemingly limited appeal.
The core concept presented without varnish will hit home for many parents - especially working mothers. "Outsiders" may see Kate as somewhat petty and self-absorbed, but those qualities will be submerged for those who identify with the protagonist. If not for the ending, which cheapens the experience as a whole, I might be recommending I Don't Know How She Does It without qualification. As it is, the movie has more to offer its core demographic, which will be forgiving of its faults, than others. I applaud I Don't Know How She Does It for having something to say and for saying it in a manner that is largely non-preachy; I just wish it had spoken with a different lead and a stronger ending.
I Don't Know How She Does It (United States, 2011)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Screenplay: Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel by Allison Pearson
Cinematography: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Rachel Portman