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I Don’t Know How She Does It is an incredibly jaded, often biased and consistently judgmental film with no concept of how it or its characters are coming across. One gets the sense it seeks to operate as a manifesto for overly criticized and underappreciated working mothers. Unfortunately, it’s too one sided to ever address any of the negatives with honesty or depth. I Don’t Know How She Does It could have been a middle finger to all those romantic comedies about career girls who give it all up when they find love, but instead, it’s a shortsighted sermon filled with tired and exploited stereotypes.
The characters most obviously painted into a corner are single mother Allison Henderson (Christina Hendricks) and stay at home mom Wendy Best (Busy Phillips). Both are given first-person interviews interspersed throughout the narrative, and each uses her screen time to incessantly bitch about everything. Allison despises the workplace conditions for women and mothers like Wendy. Wendy despises her grueling life of working out six hours a day and mothers like Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker). Kate is a juggler. She works a staggering number of hours every week and passes the load off to her architect husband (Greg Kinnear) and her college dropout nanny (Jessica Szohr). It’s not ideal, but she more or less makes it work.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Kate is offered a huge promotion on the same day her husband lands his first big contract in months. It means flying from Boston to New York for half the week, but the job of a professional juggler entails plenty of juggling. Her co-worker Bunce (Seth Meyers) offers to help selfishly shoulder the load and the credit, but Kate doesn’t see any reason why it’s fair for a father like him to travel all the time and not her. She takes the position and meets Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), an extremely successful and extremely single titan of industry interested in working with Kate both professionally and privately. Together, the pair forge a somewhat flirty but highly successful partnership, but finding herself absent for first haircuts and promised snowman dates, Kate's turning into a shitty mother and inching closer to a choice she knows needs to be made.
A working mother’s time is spent making an endless series of trade-offs, but I Don’t Know How She Does It is never wiling to fully acknowledge the expense of those choices. A woman has every right to work outside the home, but there are consequences to racking up frequent flyer miles, just as clearly as there are consequences to work-related decisions everyone else makes. I Don’t Know How She Does It is so obsessed with patting Kate on the back for doing an adequate job of parenting that it never stops to admit anyone else makes sacrifices. It's comfortable painting the Wendys of the world as selfish and stuck-up, not caring that most stay at home mothers, unlike Kate, actually do cook, clean and pick their children up on time. It calls Bunce out for going golfing and schmoozing with bosses after hours, but fails to realize is that he, like Kate, misses first haircuts and snowman dates. He might not incite the wrath of the PTA, but his absence is still felt by his children and wife.
Kate says she loves working with stocks because the market doesn’t see gender, but all I Don’t Know How She Does It sees are the inequalities its main character attempts to overcome. At times, it tries to add levity through bouts of lice and conversations about high fructose corn syrup, but these diversions aren’t funny enough or consistent enough to ward off the preachy, judgmental dishonesty that lies at its core. Early on, Kate tells us she was mortified as a child when her mother failed to give her something delicious to offer up at the bake sale. Later, she optimistically tells her husband she’s now comfortable enough to let the other mothers know she’s given her own daughter a store bought pie for her bake sale. I Don’t Know How She Does It seems to think this moment is a humorous victory, but I found it to be the perfect example of why a film cannot be successful unless it’s candid with itself. A store bought pie is not the sign of a mother who’s won. It’s the sign of one who’s laid her priorities elsewhere. That’s okay. Some of the greatest mothers in the world raid the grocery store on the way to fundraisers, but they don’t denigrate others who spent their time making cookies.
Someday someone will make a profound, interesting and careful movie about the pros and cons of working outside the home. I will enjoy it, and God willing, not remember this one ever happened.