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Mommy Dearest

by Laura Leon on September 21, 2011

I Don’t Know How She Does It
Directed by Douglas McGrath

Based on the nerve-tapping 2002 bestseller of the same name, I Don’t Know How She Does It depicts the juggling act modern working mothers construct in order to maintain some sort of order. Kate Reddy (Sara Jessica Parker) is a brilliant financial advisor at a Boston firm, a loving wife to Richard (Greg Kinnear) and patient mother to two kids. We know this in part because the script is peppered with characters remarking about Kate’s above-referenced qualities. And then some. When Kate’s dream assignment falls into her lap, it’s at a time when Richard, too, is achieving a new level of success in his own career, so while she admits that her frequent travel and added responsibilities will be a challenge, she promises that she’ll make everything work so that nobody, the kids especially, gets hurt or shortchanged. This is where a character should have commented on Kate’s apparent delusion.

One of the inherent problems with I Don’t Know is the fact that it feels hopelessly mired in a time and atmosphere that are long gone. As challenging as Kate’s work-family balance may be, today’s constant unease over the economy, job security, bank and housing failures—in short, everything that threatens the fabric of our society—is absent from the frame. The Reddys live in a spacious, impossibly clean brownstone, complete with an obliging nanny and an invisible housekeeper, and their kids appear to go to a quality private school. Kate may occasionally arrive at work with cereal stuck to her lapel or “to do” notes scribbled on her palm, but clearly, life is pretty good. The movie’s counterpoints to the lead are impossibly one-dimensional stay-at-home moms who spend hours working with trainers, hire people to “do” their children’s birthday parties, and in general look down their nose jobs at Kate and her ilk. But just for good measure, to prove that the filmmakers aren’t anti-stay-at-homers, there’s Kate’s hardworking assistant Momo (a scene stealing Olivia Munn), whose disdain for quaint ideas like marriage and children, you just know, will be proven as youthful folly before the movie’s over.

The film, directed by Douglas McGrath and scripted by Allison Pearson (who wrote the book) and Aline Brosh McKenna, occasionally tosses out observations about the differences experienced by men and women in the workplace. Kate informs her new partner, Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), that she loves her job because the marketplace doesn’t care about her gender, only whether she’s right or wrong. A conniving co-worker (Seth Meyers) is depicted as always snatching the plums from Kate’s efforts. (We know he’s no good, based on the exquisite cut of his polo shirt and the quality golf clubs placed noticeably in the frame when McGrath cuts away to a series of “documentary” analyses by other characters of Kate.) Kate’s boss Clark (Kelsey Grammar) is depicted as harsh and demanding, but we’re never given the opportunity to see Kate actually say no to an assignment, or attempt to negotiate a compromise. Indeed, it’s often hard to believe the fluttery, messy Kate is the high-powered, in-demand analyst we keep hearing about. When the movie does hint at how sex can play a factor in the everyday workplace, it’s either comedic relief or romantic.

The underlying narrative assumption—that Kate pretty much does everything—is something to which too many women can relate, but it is undermined by the simple fact that Richard is depicted, in both the script and in Kinnear’s characterization, as a fairly decent, very involved parent who does his share. One can’t help but wish that the filmmakers had both updated the essence of the original book and also had the audacity to amp up the potential comic factor by going at the, admittedly, uneasy question of just what price we all may have paid in striving for equality in the workplace. Interestingly (and completely at odds with reality), Kate never loses patience with her guilt-tripping tykes; even Doris Day’s moonlighting television ad queen got a little testy with her nagging kids in The Thrill of It All. We’re talking Doris Day! Ironically, that 1960s movie went a little further than I Don’t Know in evoking the fundamental differences between the sexes, and how changing assumptions on those differences have consequences, some good, some maybe less so. Kate Redding is depicted as clearly loving all the various aspects of who she is, but it’s a rosy, self-interested view that places the challenges of pulling an all-out Martha Stewart-type kids birthday party on an even par with those of women working two part-time jobs and worrying about how to pay for their kids’ braces.