Review: “I Don’t Know How She Does It”

101/365 I don't know how she does it!


Last night I went to see “I Don’t Know How She Does It.” Several reasons. One: yesterday morning a bloke I know, a bloke I would readily describe as A Total Chauvinist, began whining to me about the fact that the movie’s posters bear the strap-line “If it were easy, a man could do it too,” and how that this is like, OMG, sooo sexist against the menz. True, it is – but from this guy, that was just a bit too pot, kettle and black. I ended up Googling the trailer and thinking, “this sounds interesting.” Two: my straight male best friend really wanted to see it, and none of his straight male friends would go with him. Three: I’d had a couple of pints and aforementioned best friend offered to buy my ticket. It was fate, I tell you. Fate.

The movie is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by a writer called Allison Pearson, who I’ve never heard of, but who is described across the interwebnets as some kind of “chick-lit” (groan) genius. The protagonist is Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), a highly successful investment banker with two children aged two and six. She is required to travel extensively for work, leaving her also-fulltime-professional husband Richard (the always-fantastic Greg Kinnear) and her less-than-reliable nanny to take care of the things she can’t do herself, which apparently isn’t much. Kate is offered the career opportunity of a lifetime, right at the same time as Richard receives a promotion. Each of them decides to follow their star, but naturally, this makes home life all the more strained and difficult. Help and encouragement come in the form of Kate’s assistant Momo (Olivia Munn), Kate’s best friend and fellow working mama Allison (the stunning Christina Hendricks), and the bigwig banker (Pierce Brosnan) Kate teams up with in a bid to make her dream project fly.

So, there is a lot not to like about this movie. My main problem with it was that it couldn’t seem to make up its mind. Kate is the most sympathetically-depicted working mum I think I’ve ever seen in such a mainstream movie, but the film reverts to tired and borderline-offensive stereotypes when it comes to the supporting characters. The women who don’t go out to work are depicted as shallow, self-absorbed and duplicitous. Momo, the woman who chooses to focus solely on her career and remain childless, is depicted as emotionless, unlikeable and robotic. Christina Hendricks’ single mum Allison is ridiculed for being unable to prepare anything for her kids’ bake sale by Kate herself, Kate who, remember, has the services of a husband and a nanny and who freely admits she also resorted to a store-bought pie. Allison and Kate both hate the stay-at-home “Momsters”, and the feeling is obviously mutual – and naturally, Kate’s mother-in-law is always on hand at the most stressful times to offer thinly-veiled criticism. In short, the movie sets up almost all its women to be in competition with each other (cue despairing eye-roll). And of course, Momo’s sudden u-turn on her formerly iron-clad opinions about childbearing was both totally ridiculous and totally predictable. Holding her baby for the first time triggers a sinister character change in Momo, turning her from an emotionless ice-queen into a weepy glowing mother in one fell swoop. As a result, there’s a strong whiff of “your life is pretty damn meaningless until/unless you have a kid” about the whole subplot. Gah.

Less annoying, but worth a mention, is Kate’s arrogant male colleague – obviously there to represent the ‘typical’ high-powered working bloke, who entertains clients in lap-dance bars, keeps golf clubs in his office and mentions his four children only once in passing. Kate constantly worries about how she’s going to keep up with his performance and take care of her kids – and fair enough, I’m sure a lot of working mums see their male colleagues’ output as a benchmark. But the guy was just a bit too unsympathetic, and given the unenviable task of delivering hammer-it-home lines like “go for it! It’ll give your kids a chance at all that quality time they’ve been wanting to spend… with the nanny!” This was an opportunity to legitimately and thoughtfully examine some of the serious issues facing women who work in high-powered corporate environments – such as their inability to network with clients because they’re not invited on the all-boy strip club visits – but unfortunately, the movie pretty much totally missed it.

In spite of all this, however, I was kind of annoyed this morning as I skimmed through some of the reviews the movie had received. As usual, there is far too much “this movie sucks because Sarah Jessica Parker is ugly” bullshit floating around – this morning I’ve heard SJP’s face compared to that of a horse, to a shoe, and to the back of a Semi truck. Four words: shut the hell up.
I had other facepalm moments, too – The Lady, for example, claims that Kate getting to be “a cut above her unlikable, backstabbing male co-worker” is the film’s main “hint of feminism.” Yeah, because feminism is only ever about gleefully getting one over on a) the menz! and b) nasty people (kill me). Slant’s disdain-dripping review takes a this-is-just-slop-for-the-proles approach – the kind of oft-seen snobbery that deeply fucks me off. I sat in a large, well-sold theatre last night with an almost entirely female audience who seemed to really, really enjoy this film – are they all unsophisticated idiots? (I don’t even want to start on the reviewer’s condescending suggestion that Kate’s “dirty” parental jobs were “amplifie[d]… to score relatability points”, or the snotty mention of her “tweed frocks with varying stains.” One gets the feeling that had the film’s depiction of family life been more sanitized, or had Kate been perfectly turned out and wearing Manolos, that wouldn’t have been right either.)

So what did I like about the film? I liked the fact that, though predictable, it did break away from some of the usual rom-com rubbish somewhat. (I had huge reservations about Bridesmaids, but I still appreciated what it was trying to do, and the same goes here.)
Firstly, the film passes the Bechdel test – a big deal for such a mainstream rom-com. Secondly, Kate breaks the mould of the usual Hollywood working mother: she is not working in a creative field – not a fashion designer or an architect – and she’s not in a caring profession either. She is an investment banker – a role that the film actively acknowledges is rarely associated with women. (The nanny, having only a vague idea of what her employer does for a living, makes an assumption based on Kate’s gender and asks, “is she a bank teller, or something?” Ten points for painful realism.) Although I found the cut-in “interviews” with minor characters rather silly (why were they being interviewed, and by whom?!), I admired the fact that in hers, Allison was allowed to frankly voice the frustrations of many working mothers in statements about things like the double-standards surrounding parents taking time off to take care of sick children (if you’re a man, you’re a self-sacrificing hero; if you’re a woman, you’re not committed to your career). My favourite was “if you act like a man they call you abrasive and difficult. If you act like a woman they call you emotional and difficult. So clearly ‘difficult’ is just a word for anything that isn’t a man.”

A lot of reviewers are objecting to the fact that in the end, Kate picks her family over the job, making the film sappy and unrealistic. These reviewers were clearly not paying attention, because this doesn’t happen. Kate does not pick the family over the job, and I was very happy to see it. There was a point in the film where I thought she was going to reject the her family and run off with her bigwig colleague, thus ‘choosing the job,’ and then later I thought she was going to get herself deliberately fired, thus ‘choosing the kids.’ I was desperately praying that the movie wouldn’t do that whole get-your-priorities-right, it’s-one-or-the-other thing. And bless it, it didn’t. Kate did not choose the family over the job – she realised she wasn’t coping and negotiated with her boss to alter her workload. The boss (played by a severely underused Kelsey Grammar) was agreeable to this because Kate had worked damn hard and proven herself – her backstabbing male colleague was told that once he managed to achieve what Kate had, he would win the same privilege. Far from ‘ditching the job and choosing the kids’ in usual Hollywood gal style (see One Fine Day, in which single mother Michelle Pfeiffer chucks in her much-loved job so she can go to her son’s football game), Kate negotiated a way to manage both – which is what a real life working mother would do.

Finally – and this might just be me – I loved the movie’s stance on relationships and fidelity. All too often, rom-coms glamourise and indeed encourage cheating, lying and infidelity, because in the end you always end up with the right guy or gal, in rom-com world. Kate, having been propositioned by Bronson’s bigwig, basically said “um, no – I’m married, remember?” This felt so refreshing in a genre where it would have been totally acceptable for her to have a quick fling because hey, your husband always forgives you or hey, looks like the guy you slept with is actually better than your husband anyway. Again, I liked how realistic her response felt (even if she did then run miles through two inches of snow in high heels without so much as skidding).

It wasn’t the most awesome movie I have ever seen. It certainly wasn’t the most feminist. But I felt like it was trying. And in Hollywood, so often the land of “but that’s just how we do things here,” that’s kind of a big deal.
(Also, I love SJP. So shoot me.)

(Photo by Lindsey Meredith)


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