(No longer in theaters)
The Weinstein Co.
Sep 16, 2011
America has a new A-list auteur—amazingly enough, a screenwriter, and, even more amazingly, given Hollywood’s biases, a woman. Aline Brosh McKenna’s films include The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, and now I Don’t Know How She Does It. All are smart comedies centering on smart, harried, ambitious women who fight off obstacles thrown in their path by threatened males and, often, females—before they realize, in shame, that they’re in danger of losing the humanity that separated them from their type A adversaries. McKenna has a gift for screwball dialogue: She gets the connection between headlong rhythms and psychological desperation. The problem is that her screenplays have soft centers, not female-squishy but Hollywood-squashy, her heroines’ heroic assertions of independence coinciding with her own surrender to commercial conformity. In the context of so much wit, the pandering is scary.
McKenna has a lively source in Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It, composed of diary entries by a British woman juggling life as a wife and mother of two with a career in a male-dominated financial firm: Pearson’s whirligig rhythms make you feel as if you’re multitasking just reading the book. In the film, directed by Douglas McGrath, the setting is Boston and the heroine, Kate Reddy, played by Sarah Jessica Parker—and yes, I cringed at the casting, too, especially when, watching the trailer, I heard Parker deliver the narration in the same voice she used for Carrie in Sex and the City. But Kate is funnier—less arch—than Carrie, and Parker reminds you what a dizzy, all-in, high-risk comic actress she can be when she’s not too busy showing off the couture. Her furtive but furious scratching when her kids give her lice is a showstopper, and McGrath and cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh frame her beautifully when she sings “A Bushel and a Peck” over the phone to her son while the firm’s handsome boss, Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan), gazes on. McGrath’s gentle touch can be a tonic.
The movie is a grab bag of gimmicks, but a high percentage of them work, like the animated lists (Kate is a compulsive list-maker) that appear on the walls above her bed. In modern faux-documentary fashion, characters talk to the camera as if they’re being interviewed about Kate. Christina Hendricks (best friend) is giddy and charming, and Olivia Munn has contrived the perfect voice for Kate’s joyless assistant, a monotone with a hint of a hysterical quaver. But there’s too much of the rich, nonworking mother who bashes Kate from an elliptical machine, and too many lines like another mother’s at a birthday party: “Is this cake organic?” The you-can-have-it-all ending is more McKenna pandering.
The most striking gap in I Don’t Know How She Does It is the lack of a distinctive voice for Kate’s husband, Richard (Greg Kinnear), who’s confined to lusting after Kate and registering disapproval of her business trips. He’s, like, an object. So is Abelhammer, although Brosnan brings worldliness and a touch of melancholy to the part. But hey, it’s kind of cool to see men as objects in a mainstream comedy. The Male Gaze, after all, has been well (maybe too well) transmitted. Women still have juicy secrets to spill.