The basic problem with I Don’t Know How She Does It is that we are meant to sympathise with a rich woman who has an absolutely amazing life and great hair and is nannied to the hilt and I Don’t Know How To Do That. How do you do that? Can you take classes? If so, where? Actually, it’s a shame, and disappointing, and I sort of can’t help taking it personally. I had my son in 1992, when I was working on a national newspaper — stick with me; this anecdote almost has a point — and when I told the managing editor I would be requiring maternity leave, he sighed disappointedly and said, ‘I do wish you girls would keep your legs together.’
This is what it was like, back in the day, and although I had to wait another ten years for journalist Allison Pearson’s sharply humorous novel about working motherhood, on which this film is based, I do remember reading it with total pleasure, much recognition and many laughs-out-loud while keeping my legs most assiduously together (I wasn’t going to make that mistake again!). The book seemed wholly on-the-money, whereas this feels way off, and enragingly so. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve changed, or maybe the times simply have. That managing editor, I should have added, even wore a monocle. He was one crazy guy.
The film stars Sarah Jessica Parker as our heroine, Kate Reddy, although really it is Sarah Jessica Parker playing Carrie Bradshaw playing Kate Reddy. I like Sarah Jessica Parker, and I like Sarah Jessica Parker playing Carrie, so Carrie playing Kate isn’t particularly a problem for me, but it’s still probably best that Ms Parker doesn’t hold out for Mother Courage, if you get my drift.
The action has been upped from London to Boston, where Kate is an ambitious, financial whiz who works for an investment bank while juggling her husband (Greg Kinnear), an architect who is often out of work, and two young children. The tension, if you can call it that — this is tremendously dull, dramatically — comes from seeing if she can negotiate her familial responsibilities along with a big new work project headed up by Pierce Brosnan, the sort of boss who demands she fly to New York right this minute even though she’s promised to make a snowman with her daughter. And so on.
Directed by Douglas McGrath, this has a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) and it’s as if she has gone though the Pearson book, highlighted everything that was sharp or humorous, and then excised it. This Kate isn’t an endearing muddle who is trying to do her best. She is a frantic drag. She is a neurotic, self-pitying ninny. This Kate stresses like a mad thing when the nanny is five minutes late and begs her husband not to leave the house so she can quickly take a shower. Hello, Kate? There’s the kids, there’s the TV, stick them in front of it! That’s what TVs are for!
This Kate is happy when her husband lands the job of his dreams but, more importantly, needs to talk about how it is going to affect her promotion. This Kate earns a sensational income and lives in a gorgeous town house on four floors (I counted) and has a loving husband with the patience of Job and a full-time nanny and a designer wardrobe (never the same thing twice) and fabulous hair, yet we are somehow meant to sympathise with her because she lies awake at night, compiling to-do lists in her head? I’m betting the working mother who cleans offices at nights wouldn’t find much in this lifestyle to complain about. ‘I’d settle just for the hair,’ she might even say, ‘but if you also want to give me the gorgeous town house on four floors, I wouldn’t turn it down.’ You know, this is not about a woman struggling to have it all. It’s about a woman who does have it all and wants more. It’s kind of obscene.
Plus, the direction is stale, the working mom jokes are stale — nits, baby sick down your front, that sort of thing — and the secondary characters are all as one-dimensionally unpleasant as the lead. And lastly? It ends with a schmaltzy kiss as snow falls — oh, honestly— and we are meant to care? Like I said, I Don’t Know How To Do That. I just don’t.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 24, 2011