Spoiler Alert: I know how she does it. And I’m about to tell you.
The “she” of the title is Kate Reddy (played by Sarah Jessica Parker), and, for starters, she has a full-time nanny. The nanny apparently also cleans, really well, or else there is some unseen housekeeper, because the house is always in a perfect state of cleanliness, beds pristinely made and kitchen counters bare and shining.
Someone also does laundry, because there is not a single basket of dirty, clean-but-not-folded or folded-but-not-put-away laundry anywhere in sight. That same person, or perhaps someone else, must also do Kate’s personal shopping, because she has a killer wardrobe, as do the children, and what mother working a demanding 60+ hour-a-week schedule has time for shopping?
Kate and her (underemployed or unemployed) architect husband Richard (a likable and serviceable Greg Kinnear) and two young children live in a huge, gorgeous townhouse in the most picturesque and expensive corner of Brooklyn Heights, with high ceilings and beautifully eclectic furnishings and an amazingly huge and gorgeously appointed kitchen that’s flooded with sun and would put the Williams-Sonoma catalog to shame. I know the story’s supposed to be set in Boston, and many of the street scenes were obviously shot in Boston, but I assure you, that townhouse they live in is in Brooklyn Heights, and it costs $4 million, at a minimum.
So it goes without saying that Kate is very successful at her job (at some kind of very stuffy bank), and pulls in piles and piles of money. In actuality, even at the top investment banks, someone in a midlevel position such as Kate’s would more probably be living in a relatively modest 3-bedroom New York City apartment (still $2 million) or a house in Teaneck, but somehow she’s able to swing that $20,000 monthly mortgage payment, plus private school for her kids (set at Plymouth Church School on Orange, where I almost sent my daughter—shivers!).
And what does Kate do, exactly, to make her bosses throw barrels of cash her way? Get this: she came up with a genius new financial product: a retirement investment account. Customers can invest their money, and then they’ll have money to live on when they retire! Talk about innovation. No wonder she’s so proud. No wonder her superiors eat it up. And the way Reddy convinces these hard-bitten financial types to go for it? Well, there are montages where she deals in colorful pie charts and bar graphs, so obviously she knows her numbers. But what really wins them over is the sad story of her mother, who was widowed and had no retirement account to live off of. Who could say no to that? I guess the screenwriters thought that arbitrage and derivatives would be simply too difficult for the audience to grasp, but honestly, these scenes sound as if they were written by a twelve year old.
I know the patriotic duty of Hollywood is provide fantasies to get us through the hard times, like those Busby Berkeley musicals of the Great Depression, but as a harried working mother myself, I found this vision of harried working motherhood a little hard to bear. We’re supposed to pity poor wealthy, successful Kate Reddy, who’s a ridiculously rock-hard size 0 without ever working out (in fact, much scorn is heaped upon an exercise-obsessed mommy-wars opponent, played by Busy Philipps) and goes to bed with her boulder breasts encased in lacy push-up bras and even so suffers sleepless beleaguerment because of the pressure of being chosen for primo, demanding special projects at work and being ever so sweetly pursued by the world’s most handsome, courtly and ardent superior, improbably named Jack Abelhammer and played by none other than Pierce Brosnan.
What would Barbara Ehrenreich have to say about this, one wonders? Would it kill us to ever look beyond that top 0.0002% of society? Oh wait, they do. There’s a cheap, cheesy, embarrasing and thankfully short montage where Reddy and Pierce Brosnan go bowling with fat, homely, working class people (I think they’re car mechanics) in Cleveland. Those salt-of-the-earth types totally LOVE Abelhammer. He’s so handsome, and sharply dressed, and a good bowler, too.
But never mind reality. How does the fantasy play? Parker is competent as always, a complete pro at playing this character who’s essentially Carrie Bradshaw’s older sister, the one who settled down and had the kids. Nothing about Parker ever really touches the heart, or the funny bone either, but she knows how to get the job done. She can dither frothily like nobody’s business. I Don’t Know How She Does It is one of those movies that worries the audience won’t care enough about the story unless things are ratcheted up to an extreme pitch. Thus, the only way Kate can have a work/life balance talk with her boss is to storm in while he’s in the middle of a meeting. And the only way she can make it up to her daughter is to promise—promise!—that she’ll definitely be there to make a snowman the very next time—the very next time!—it snows. Never mind that no reasonable parent, not even a loathsome SAHM (that’s Stay-At-Home Mom, for those of you nonconversant in mommy war acronyms) would make a promise to her child that’s so circumstances-dependent and thus possibly open to disappointment. Then there would be no montage of Kate running through adorable central Boston through Christmasy snow flurries in her tiny mini skirt and sky-high stilettos (on cobblestones!) to prove her motherly love. It’s a measure of Parker’s ability that she almost sells this whackadoodle business.
As for poor Christina Hendricks (Mad Men’s Joan Holloway), she’s mostly trapped behind a law office conference table whence she dispenses purportedly witty commentary, like how the inside of a mom’s brain is as busy as an air traffic control tower. It’s 21st Century Erma Bombeck! With massive boobage!
Fact is, Pearson’s novel was written in 2002. There’s been a lot of murky storm water under the bridge since. A lot of nasty mommy warfare, documented in thousands of gigabytes of Urbanbaby forums, not to mention devastatingly costly and deadly realwars abroad, a national housing mortgage and foreclosure crisis, and a major and lingering recession. This movie is like a time capsule of the frivolous, innocent period before all that, and it feels, at times, positively and annoyingly quaint.
SNL’s Seth Meyers is cast for that smirk as Reddy’s nasty work competitor. He is, however, useful in humorously pointing out the enormous crevasse that still exists in workplace perceptions of the dedication of fathers vs. mothers. Although Meyers’ character is the father of four, they never cramp his style, since, of course, he’s lucky enough to have a wife to take care of all that for him. Where does one get these wonderful wives? I’d simply love one.
There are cameos from Kelsey Grammer as Reddy’s boss and Jane Curtin as her strangely reactionary mother-in-law (a woman who seems not to have been paying attention during the feminist 1960s and 1970s of her youth), but it’s Olivia Munn as Momo who surprised me by winning every scene she’s in. Frankly, I find her character completely racist (I also did when I read Allison Pearson’s book, on which this movie is based). Momo is humorless, unkind, crazy hard-working, ridiculously driven, a drone. You know, Asian. That’s just how we are. Out of this dross Munn forges a slyly hilarious performance, and turns in the richest, best developed character arc in the movie. She also provides the one moving moment in an ending that nearly chokes on its own golden-sunlight-flooded self-satisfaction.