Even as a non-mother and an avoider of work, I realize that the life of a working mother is difficult. Juggling the demands of the children, husbands, and jobs competing for your attention must be complicated. Fortunately, there are movies like I Don't Know How She Does It to boil it down to a few simplistic observations and dumb platitudes.
Any working mother is bound to see herself in this. Provided she is also a fictional character on a sitcom, that is. For example, Claire Huxtable might watch this and think, "Oh, yes, this is my life exactly!" Real people probably will not relate quite as closely. Based on Allison Pearson's best-selling book and adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses), it examines modern motherhood in such a superficially generic way that you'd swear the movie thinks no one has ever brought up the subject before.
Hey, did you know that when you have a stressful job and a couple young children, you'll often be too tired for sex? And that sometimes there's a splotch of pancake batter on your blouse? And that it's hard to schedule business meetings so they don't conflict with your kids' school events? All of these things are true! It's about time a movie had the insight to make such astute observations!
Sarah Jessica Parker, sticking close to her Sex and the City roots, plays Kate Reddy, an allegedly frumpy but still obviously very stylish woman whose job as an investment banker has her traveling frequently. She narrates the film for us, Carrie Bradshaw-style, letting us know how much she misses her 6-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son when she's away, not to mention her supportive and long-suffering husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who's like an architect or something. (It doesn't matter.) She's grateful for the competent nanny, Paula (Jessica Szohr), but wishes she could be home more to spend time with the kids herself. But hey -- those investments aren't going to invest themselves!
Kate's narration also allows her to give us the inside scoop on her friends and co-workers without the movie having to, you know, SHOW us what they're like. The process is reduced to a series of painfully bland one-liners. For example, her assistant, Momo (Olivia Munn), "has the work ethic of a robot -- and the warmth!" One of the judgmental, gym-going "supermoms" she knows "is in better shape than a Navy SEAL -- tougher, too!" Kate's best friend, Allison (Christina Hendricks), a single mom whose alleged child is never seen, gets in on the act with this: "The inside of a working woman's head is like the control tower at O'Hare Airport!"
That's as funny as it gets, folks. It gets no funnier.
Kate's frantic lifestyle threatens to overwhelm her when she lands an assignment with suave colleague Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) and must spend many nights and weekends working on a presentation to take to an investor. (Or something. The movie is as unclear on the details of high finance as it is on parenthood.) Once again, rather than being insightful or clever, the movie reduces everything to a series of contrivances, like the investor only being able to meet on the day after Thanksgiving, which is when Kate promised her daughter they'd build a snowman.
The movie periodically cuts to one of Kate's acquaintances giving testimonials, like reality-show contestants. Mostly they express their amazement over her ability to handle it all, with variations of "I don't know how she does it" repeated constantly. Her enemies, like a supermom played by Busy Philipps and a smarmy co-worker played by Seth Meyers, make passive-aggressive remarks. So does her mother-in-law, played by Jane Curtin, who's as underused and wasted in this as Philipps, Meyers, and Hendricks.
Allison, the best friend, makes one observation that struck me as relevant. She says that when a man leaves work to spend time with his sick child, he's a hero, a caring dad. When a woman does it, she's a slacker who's not committed to her job. That rings true. Honestly, most of the double standards the movie brings up sound like they're probably pretty accurate. The thing is, they're also obvious, and the movie (which was directed by Douglas McGrath, who made Emma) doesn't present them with any wit or originality. It's all "men never notice when we're out of toilet paper!" and "oh no, my daughter got head lice at school and now my scalp is itchy during this business meeting!" and similar wakka-wakka nonsense. All that's missing is the braying laugh track.