Working mother Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) lies in bed, making lists on the ceiling of her Boston row house. Technically, the lists are in her head, but director Doug McGrath’s I Don’t Know How She Does It features onscreen graphics, documentary-style interviews and other tricks that break the fourth wall. At times, Kate steps out of the action to provide context for the audience. The movie is a Chatty Cathy, eager to share. But never to overshare — this is a civilized, ladylike comedy. Kate puts “Kegels?” on the list, then quickly replaces it with “bagels,” which are unquestionably more vital to keeping her household running smoothly.
Kate is Carrie Bradshaw stripped bare of her bachelors, even. She has an architect husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who is more beta than Big, a kindergartener daughter and a toddler son whose first words are “Bye-bye, Mama.” “That’ll come in handy,” snipes Kate’s disapproving mother-in-law (Jane Curtin), referring to the frequent business trips that are part of Kate’s high-powered job at a financial firm. Carrie and Kate aren’t all that different — they both spend a lot of time worrying, for one thing — except that Kate’s closet is full of black, white and grey prints, not tutus, and her landscape of anxiety includes dependents and lice, not STDs. Her life is in place. The movie’s dramatic tension, such as it is, rests on how she negotiates the responsibilities of a big work project that pairs her with Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), an attractive mover and shaker, and her busy home life during one autumn and winter.
Mild and unchallenging, I Don’t Know How She Does It is geared to an audience of settled sorts. This would be the movie I’d end up seeing with another tired mom friend if I couldn’t coax her into Contagion. (Lice are a drag, but a pandemic has real intrigue.) Parker’s Kate is a sympathetic character; in adapting Allison Pearson’s popular novel, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory) scales back on the rottenness of Kate’s arch nemesis at work, Chris Bunce (Seth Meyers), who in Pearson’s book is a full-blown sexual harasser. It’s the heartless girls who get the most lines: Kate’s smart young assistant Momo (Olivia Munn) and a competitive “Momster” (Busy Philipps), both of whom are full of contempt for Kate’s perpetually-running-late-and-smeared-with-pancake-batter life.
McGrath’s film has the rhythm and glossy look of a romantic comedy. But with no obvious endpoint, like a wedding, it meanders, leaving the impression of a group hug over (or wallow in) the complications of motherhood. When Kate cries out, “I have planned everything so this exact thing wouldn’t happen,” mothers everywhere will know her pain. But while the dilemmas of working motherhood have been well-chronicled, all the hand-wringing hasn’t produced any miraculous ideas about managing what are really two full-time jobs. Kate could go out for cigarettes and never come back, or maybe even run away with tempting Jack, but she loves her kids and she loves her husband. She could quit her job, but she loves that too, and since Richard is working freelance, presumably her salary is much needed in the well-appointed Reddy household. Interestingly, in a movie about a woman who works with money, that issue is never discussed.
This is a cautious movie, eager not to offend. Whereas Pearson’s Kate was a feminist who plotted revenge on Bunce and seriously flirted with Jack, the movie version of her is softer, prone to saying “Thank you” too much. Unlike the character Uma Thurman played in the dreadful Motherhood, Kate Reddy won’t make anyone — not even Momo, who is baffled by Kate’s interest in her children — consider swearing off motherhood. Unlike Kate Winslet’s character in Little Children, Kate doesn’t willfully act out her sense of oppression. She’s nice. If she were on a talk show, she’d come across a lot like Sarah Jessica Parker: decent, earnest and eager to please. Even though Kate’s time is fractured, she never seems to take out her stress on her children.
It’s not that I Don’t Know How She Does It tells actual lies about working motherhood — many of its observations and jokes are on point. It’s just that it omits the edge, the desperation of a woman on the verge. (Rule of thumb: if someone is using the phrase “I don’t know how she does it,” then “she” is on the verge.) The supposed maternal transgressions that Kate agonizes over, like bringing a store-bought pie to the school bake sale, are so minor, so forgivable. I Don’t Know How She Does It holds up a mirror for the modern mother, but gazing into it, many of those mothers are likely to think they’re looking into one of those trick mirrors found in some stores, the kind that help sell bathing suits by making everything look better. The movie reflects an idealized version of someone failing. If only all such bad mothers could be so good.