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'She Does It,' But You're Probably Not Up To The Job

<strong>Hi, Finance!</strong> The perennial kittenish pertness of Sarah Jessica Parker (left, with Pierce Brosnan) makes her an unexpected choice for finance executive Kate Reddy, the too-much-isn't-enough heroine of <em>I Don't Know How She Does It</em>.
Craig Blankenhorn
The Weinstein Company
Hi, Finance! The perennial kittenish pertness of Sarah Jessica Parker (left, with Pierce Brosnan) makes her an unexpected choice for finance executive Kate Reddy, the too-much-isn't-enough heroine of I Don't Know How She Does It.

Almost a decade ago, British journalist Allison Pearson published a comic novel about the trials of an overcommitted hedge fund manager trying to juggle family and career. As chick lit goes, I Don't Know How She Does It was warm, witty and endearingly self-amused, if only peripherally aware of the fact that there are worse problems than having it all. The book became a best-seller in every country where women earn enough to suffer such dilemmas. Oprah gave her blessing. ("The working mother's Bible!") Movie rights were quickly secured.

Ten years later, it says something about the elusive state of bliss known as work-life balance that the trials of the overextended working mother remain a mommy-blog evergreen, and that Pearson's novel remains a property hot enough to merit a movie. Or it would be, had director Douglas McGrath and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna not made such a hash of translating the English page to the American screen.

I Don't Know How She Does It is a lazy mess made worse by bad choices, beginning with its lead. Sarah Jessica Parker's specialty role — the kittenish child-woman dressed like an oversexed 10-year-old — pretty much exhausted its charm as far back as L.A. Story, in which she played Steve Martin's high-colonic-addicted date, and the actress has grown steadily more annoying as Carrie Bradshaw, coyly simpering at Mr. Big in the Sex and the City franchise. In I Don't Know How She Does It, the actress is downright improbable as the confident Boston fund manager Kate Reddy, happily married and mother of two adorable tykes. (Caring for the latter, during Kate's many work trips, is the world's most reliable and tactful nanny.)

Yes, Kate is living the new American dream, yet all is not well in her universe. An all-round multitasker and incipient basket case, she lies awake in the wee hours making lists of unfinished business, "from Kegels to bagels." At work she turns cartwheels crafting brilliant yet ethically pure deals for her clients while trying to manage her guilt about not being "there" for her family.

Hamming wildly, Parker renders Kate as a hand-flapping incompetent rather than a mature adult with too much to do. It doesn't help that she's flanked by two smart performers, either of whom would have made a Kate far less colorlessly vapid than Parker's.

As her best friend, Mad Men's Christina Hendricks has little to do but declaim women's issues to the camera. (McGrath opts for the overused mockumentary frame, complete with freeze frames and subtitles.) Meanwhile, Olivia Munn extracts maximum mileage from a faintly distasteful moue as Kate's junior colleague — no bunny-boiler, she, but still a go-getting workaholic who thinks she hates children. A swift turnaround is to be expected in a movie as placative as this one, but not before Munn steals the show looking down her nose at the dab of cereal on Kate's lapel.

Time and again the movie sidles up to the big-ticket issue at its heart — the awkward spot where the gains of feminism rub up against the desire for love and family — then backs away without a serious scratch. Every now and then, the dialogue genuflects weakly in the general direction of the women's movement. "The market doesn't know what sex I am," Kate observes brightly while batting her eyelids at Jack (a very good Pierce Brosnan), the suave widower with whom she cuts flashy deals in New York. "It only knows if I'm right or wrong."

Yet no amount of standing up to the boss (Kelsey Grammer), demanding equal chores from her quiescent hubby (Greg Kinnear) or cutaways to Rosalind Russell duking it out with Cary Grant in His Girl Friday can hide the fact that the enemy here is not men. With one exception — Seth Meyers in a disposable role as Kate's smug rival for the plum contracts — the guys are all malleable softies in gym-rat clothing.

No, in the chick-flick world, hell is other women, and here specifically it's the stay-at-home wife and mother. Like so many of its genre, this movie snickers long and loud at non-working mothers, represented by Kate's passive-aggressive mother-in-law (Jane Curtin) and a blond harridan (astutely played by Busy Philipps) spitting pious venom from the StairMaster or scoffing at Kate's store-bought contribution to the school bake sale. In Bridget Jones' Diary such women were dismissed (until Bridget became one) as "Smug Marrieds"; here they're disparaged as "Momsters."

In my experience, self-righteousness is fairly evenly distributed between mothers who work and those who don't, and career girls by no means have a monopoly on sisterly solidarity. From where I sit, we working mothers should be grateful to stay-at-home moms who work their unpaid tails off raising funds for school arts programs and who, when called upon by women working late for emergency child pickups, quietly say, "No problem, take your time, she can eat with us." Compared with them, and to the growing army of mothers who work and raise their kids on a shoestring or less, Kate Reddy lives a royal fairy tale.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.