What the hell happened to Sarah Jessica Parker? Earlier in her career -- even in the early days of Carrie Bradshaw -- there was an easy lightness to her, an uninhibited charm that suited her often airy characters. But in the past few years, she's morphed into something else -- the brittle screw-up whom everyone finds inexplicably irresistible. By the time we got to the "Sex and the City" movies, her once adorable character had become utterly insufferable. In "What About the Morgans?" she was the shrill ex-wife Hugh Grant still somehow pined for. And in "I Don't Know How She Does It," she's Kate Reddy, a flustered superwoman whose greatest flaw is that she's "always tired and insufficiently groomed." If you were to cut out all the film's scenes in which other characters praise her for being so darn smart and lovable and a wonderful mother, you would be left with a movie that's 10 minutes long. And a hell of a lot better.
Based on Allison Pearson's 2002 bestseller, "I Don't Know She Does It" isn't just the name of a drab new comedy, it's the oft-repeated refrain of amazement toward the turbo-charged Kate, a doting Boston mother of two young children and a whiz-bang financial analyst. Of course, the truth is that Kate doesn't know how she does it either. Perpetually teetering on the brink of domestic and professional catastrophe, she fends off the vague disapproval of the neighborhood stay-at-home moms, the guilt trips of her children and the Herculean demands of her job. Sure, sometimes she shows up for a meeting with the words "bouncy house" scrawled on her hand or has to sprint off on a business trip before she can make snowmen with her children, but isn't she just amaaaazing in a touching yet daffy way? Look at her, bathed in golden light and playing with her kids! Behold Pierce Brosnan, falling in love with her as she PowerPoints his socks off! Aw shucks, there she is, sweetly explaining motherhood by saying, "No one can explain it to you."
Pearson's novel struck such a chord because the frantic, absurd demands of 21st century parenting, the sinking feeling that in attempting to have it all you may be failing massively on two critical fronts, are a real-life comedy of errors for so many of us. I know the sensation well myself -- that's why you're reading a review that was composed on an uptown A train, en route to picking up a child from school. And Pierce Brosnan hasn't even ever once taken me out for cocktails and bowling.
Despite its luxurious milieu of beautiful homes, doting baby sitters, and gleaming offices, "I Don't Know How She Does It" does at times tap into relatable emotions -- both humbling lows and exhilarating highs. While Kate is conflicted about the demands of her life, she's at least always clear that she needs both her family and her work to be fulfilled. She may be stretched thin, but she doesn't downplay her ambition or her enjoyment of its rewards. The tradeoff, as Kate's impossibly great husband, Richard (a subtle, appealing Greg Kinnear), moans, is that "We never relax or goof off or talk about something other than logistics."
But the film's moments of exhaustion-tinged resonance have been played out too many times before -- unsubtly acknowledged in a scene where Kate and Richard snuggle up to watch the classic "His Girl Friday." It's not that you can't do jokes about parenthood -- "Modern Family" and the brand-new "Up All Night" are both pretty damn funny. But "I Don't Know How She Does It" just flat-out steals the smarmy office underminer that James Spader perfected in "Baby Boom," this time with a smarmy Seth Meyers. Kristin Wiig's robotic baby-hater from "Knocked Up," meanwhile, has morphed into Kate's ice-cold, briskly efficient assistant Momo (Olivia Munn). There are all-too-familiar gags about business attire stained with pancake batter, and tired dialogue about the different ways we judge men and women for doing the same things.
The major drawback of "I Don't Know How She Does It," however, is Parker herself. She seems pathologically drawn to characters who don't possess believable flaws or complications -- just annoying tics. Kate may adjust her pantyhose at inopportune moments and spend an awful lot of time either apologizing to or thanking the males in her life for being so obliging -- but she never loses it with her beautiful, adoring kids, never wavers in her devotion to her cute, incredibly helpful spouse, never displays a glimmer of real darkness. She's presented as the kind of transparently splendid woman who takes a break from late-night meetings to sing a lullaby to her daughter -- and it makes the movie less of a tribute to working parents than a Valentine to its star. Watching Parker, I was reminded of "The Mirror Has Two Faces," a film in which the entire cast was apparently contractually obligated to praise Barbra Streisand every five minutes. Parker's Kate is, we are ceaselessly reminded, a deft "juggler," morally superior to both her unfeeling male co-workers and her smug fellow moms. Well, good for her. But though the ostensible mystery of the film is the marvel of how she does it, the ultimate bigger head-scratcher is why on earth anyone would care.