Sunday, January 8, 2012

At the Movies: I Don't Know How She Does It

I Don't Know How She Does It made me a little bit nervous.  As I'm sure it was meant to.  According to Mindy Kaling's list of romantic comedy stereotypes (even if this movie isn't exactly a romantic comedy), its heroine Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a cross between the beautiful klutz and the busy working woman who is obsessed with her career and never ever has any fun.  As a finance executive, wife, and mother of two, Boston-based Kate is relentlessly plagued by a never-ending to-do list that catapults her into one fiasco after another (enter beautiful klutz syndrome) and makes her the subject of smug stay-at-home-mom Wendy Best's (Busy Phillips) barbed commentary (delivered documentary-style from a treadmill at the gym).  Although Kate's freelance architect husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is mostly understanding, we sense that he is one play date away from a meltdown.

The heat is turned up on Kate's pressure-cooker life when she scores an account designing retirement fund plans for hotshot New York financier Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan).   Far from being put off by Kate's klutziness, the widowed Jack is charmed by it, a feeling that grows as Kate shuttles between Boston and New York for their meetings.  Kate is soon in the precarious position of forging a workplace friendship with a colleague who has a crush on her, a situation that causes her to unwittingly serve as emotional caretaker for Jack.  In this way her career resembles an illicit affair, not because she reciprocates Jack's feelings, but because it usurps her time and attention from her family.    

Of course, Richard lands a plumb design job just when Kate begins traveling, creating the kind of intense conflict for which movies like these are made.  Now, Richard is a pretty good guy.  Certainly not some stereotypical tyrant who would lighten the load of Kate's dilemma by way of his sheer awfulness.  It's his very mild-manneredness that complicates things, echoing the mindset of the husbands in those Second Shift studies.  Which is to say that he seems to think that it's fine for his wife to work - as long as it doesn't get in the way of her real work, which is in the home.

It should be noted that not every part of the movie is serious.  The plot is laced with classic Carrie Bradshaw-style narration that "Sex and the City" fans will enjoy, if only because it reminds them of Parker's plucky appeal as an authority on angst.  There is also plenty of witty dialogue, punctuated by well-placed jokes.  Finally, the spoiled and catty Wendy Best is funny.  Yet at the heart of her quips is a bitterness that I can't help but feel channels the movie's central message, which is this: Kate may travel a treadmill of never-ending conflict between work and home, but Wendy is trapped on a treadmill of catering to her kids and in-laws.  She's angry because she's jealous of Kate.  Although stressed and conflicted, Kate never comes off as angry.  The comparison between Kate and Wendy poses the question: What do these women really want, and how stressed are they willing to be to get it?  At first I had trouble answering this question.  During most of the movie, I just wanted Kate to quit her crazy-ass job already.  But ultimately I understood that for her, her job was her identity and therefore worthy of fighting for on her terms.

So, a lot of deep thoughts swirling around here.  I Don't Know How She Does It, by the way, got terrible reviews. (It closed fairly quickly after opening this past September.)  I admit that it wasn't great.  But I don't think it was as bad as people made it out to be either.  It was just up against the challenge of tackling an unpopular topic and falling somewhere between light fare and full-fledged drama in the process.

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