“All us working moms feel like we’re spinning 50 plates at a time,” says Allison (Christina Hendricks) as I Don’t Know How She Does It begins. But a special few do it better than everyone else. At least they look better while they’re doing it. Or maybe they’re just living inside movies that spin the fantasy that it can be done—especially if you whine and worry and cajole your husband and coworkers and best friends, until they too believe that you are doing it.
Whatever “it” might be. This is the primary unanswered question in Douglas McGrath’s deeply irritating movie. The irritation begins with the interview gimmick. Standing on a sidewalk, as if he’s been surprised by a filmmaker with a mic, Allison offers her impressions of her significantly named best friend Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), who is one of those few who is better at doing it, until she’s not. Allison introduces the story of Kate’s sorta meltdown, starting with the bake sale: “Oh my god,” Allison smiles and ducks her head like she’s breaking a trust, “Did she tell you about the bake sale?”
Of course. The bake sale. Really, how else could such a story begin? Now come the flashbacks: Kate’s coming home, late, from a business trip (she’s a finance manager at a Boston firm). And she’s determined, she says in a voice-over that doesn’t seem to be made for the same film that includes Allison’s interview, to make her daughter Emily (Emma Rayne Lyle) believe she’s baked a pie for her school bake sale. Because in this fantasy, based on a novel by Allison Pearson, six-year-olds are really concerned that their mothers bake cookies and pies for other people to purchase and eat.
Kate tries to distress her store-bought pie with a rolling pin and some powdered sugar. In the morning, you see that her first concern is in fact not Emily, but the utterly haughty perfecto mom and apparent archenemy who doesn’t work and whose name is, so very painfully, Wendy Best (Busy Phillipps). That Kate has an archenemy gives you an idea of how backwards the movie is, as is the fact that Wendy’s a cartoon, her blond hair pulled back tight as she offers her own opinions of Kate while elliptical-izing at her upscale gym, attended by a trainer who looks alternately dazed and mortified.
This guy’s daunted look is not shared by the other men in the film, whose couple of dimensions more or less match Kate’s. Her husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) has a job, doing something that’s “independent,” and while she’s supportive of his career choice, she also kind of resents that he’s the guy and she has to distress pies. (He’s an awesome husband, his own crisis reduced to an oh-so-sad face when she checks her Blackberry during Thanksgiving). In her other sphere, Kate’s mostly oblivious boss Clark (Kelsey Grammer) and her primary rival at work Chris (Seth Meyers, not even a little bit funny), both treat her like a girl, expecting her to do it but also maintaining low expectations that she won’t, quite. Chris, whom Kate calls the “Designated Office Asshole,” is especially fond of needling her, reminding her that he’s ever-ready to replace her, to out-do her, to prove his masculine superiority. His interviews tend to feature his golf clubs prominently displayed in the background, in his office.
Kate’s most significant interactions with a man involve Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) (Allison comments on his name, so I won’t bother), head of a hedge fund in New York. When she lands his big account (one that pretends its mission is to look after its clients), Kate must travel between home and Manhattan, leaving her kids with sitters or dad, and so, straining the marriage, even though Richard appears quite capable of managing the home for a couple of months. (It’s unclear whether a glimpse of His Girl Friday on Richard and Kate’s TV means I Don’t Know How She Does It is citing a source or revealing its own comparative incompetence.) Amid the temporary chaos, Richard in fact handles things. And, unsurprisingly, it’s his mother, Maria (Jane Curtin), who disapproves, proposing that the olden-days division of labor and blame was stable and so, good: “Lew made the money,” she says, “I changed the diapers.” With both parents doing everything, Maria frets, any potential problem is “everybody’s fault.” Cut to Kate, her face fallen, as if this ridiculous verdict makes sense.
Kate’s valiant efforts to juggle domestic and career realms are complicated by Jack’s presumed appeal (he’s Pierce Brosnan: all he has to do is show up). Their first meeting is framed by that hoary plot device, the mis-sent email, this one supposed to go to Allison and describing her tedious assignment to “blow” a potential client in NYC. He’s vaguely amused and so, seemingly willing to overlook her bizarre behavior in his office: alerted by a text message just before she enters that her children have lice, she spends the next few minutes itching her head and mussing her hair and trying to act like she’s not doing it.
Here, it’s particularly difficult to watch Kate do it. The film knows this, mirroring your discomfort at her monkey-like gyrations in the horrified expression of her uptight, ultra-competent assistant Momo (Olivia Munn), hoping against hope that Jack won’t notice even though he must. I Don’t Know How She Does It here sets up an ongoing pattern of looking-as-judgment: Momo will be repeatedly appalled and Jack will be repeatedly charmed. Whether he catches Kate adjusting her pantyhose or singing to Emily on the phone late at night (or even better, watches her bowl during a business trip to the Midwest, the only place people bowl in the movies).
The movie favors Jack’s enchantment over Momo’s revulsion, and as if to punish her for being so short-sighted, it also makes her pregnant. As Momo has to deal with morning sickness and loss of focus, she comes to appreciate rather than disrespect Kate’s legerdemain. With this cheap trick, piled on top of the inevitable admiration bestowed on Kate by Jack, Richard (eventually, after he has a couple of miserable, “where’s-my-wife/mommy?” moments), and even Clark, I Don’t Know How She Does It ensures that Kate wins the day, that is, she doesn’t have to give up anything in order to do it.
As Kate makes all the right decisions in spite of all the hurdles thrown up by men (and, of course, the unfair opinion rendered by the archenemy), the movie winds down to an excruciating conclusion. Kate’s great, and so’s her hedge fund.