Picture this. You want to make a rom com about the struggles of working moms in America. Namely, the daily sacrifices demanded by juggling career-building with child-rearing. (Great!) You set this movie in a big city, where families feels the squeeze of higher costs and the faster pace of life. You choose Boston. (Smart!) You recruit a solid list of actors & actresses, including Sarah Jessica Parker, Greg Kinnear, Pierce Brosnan, Christina Hendricks, Olivia Munn, and Seth Meyers. You make Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) the protagonist, and Kinnear her husband. (Excellent!) So far so good.
Considering yourself artsy, you proceed to sprinkle faux-documentary confessionals from various characters throughout the movie. All the nanny’s confessionals have a surfing backdrop as if people go surfing in Boston. (Weird, off-putting). Next, you choose not to represent a middle (or lower) class family in Dorchester, but a wealthy (think top 5%) family living in a brownstone on Tremont Street. This family has a full-time nanny, sends their kids to private school, and has the financial resources to pay away any real childcare problems. (Losing interest). As this choice winnows your target audience, you include characters whose “mom stories” would be much more interesting but shuffle these stories to the side. SJP’s best friend (Hendricks) is a single mom while SJP’s intern (Munn) decides to go through with an unplanned pregnancy. (Tell. These. Stories. Like the incredible Two Days, One Night. Or, for something lighter, Juno).
Now you’re asking yourself, how did I get here? Is it too late to go back? Answering yes, you mix all these choices in a blender and get I Don’t Know How She Does It. Take a moment to breathe, movies with more questionable creative choices than these have managed to stick the landing. But this is not one of those movies.
I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011)
I Don’t Know was directed by Douglas McGrath, who hasn’t directed a feature movie since. I already told you much about the movie’s premise, so let’s blitz through the plot.
The Setup: Can She Do It?
Sarah Jessica Parker is a hedge fund manager on the cusp of a breakout. She’s working on a big pitch (something about helping people retire) with Pierce Brosnan, and if his boss likes it then SJP’s career is launched. Problem is, she also wants to have time for her family. She frequently travels from Boston to New York to work with Brosnan, but yearns to spend time with her husband (Kinnear), make pies for her daughter’s kindergarten bake sale, and take her two year old son for his first haircut. Adding extra stress, coworker Seth Meyers embraces all of toxic masculinity to constantly remind SJP that family is a burden and that he can work harder, faster, stronger. Something’s gotta give, but what?
The Middle: Will She Have An Affair?
SJP and Pierce Brosnan spend long hours together, often in his NYC office and often followed by candlelit dinners at fancy restaurants. (Pro-tip: to avoid extra-marital affairs, set boundaries that minimally include no romantic dinners with other dudes/dudettes. Counterpoint to myself: women likely feel they must perform this way to advance their career and we as a society must work to change that). SJP’s work constantly pulls her away from family, including an unplanned urgent trip to Cleveland (where Brosnan takes SJP on a bowling date) and leaving her family on Thanksgiving to make her big pitch to Brosnan’s boss. All this traveling puts significant strain on her children and on Kinnear. Eventually, Kinnear reaches his tipping point, grows suspicious of how much time SJP spends with Brosnan, and starts an argument. Things are looking bleak.
Resolution: She Does It!
SJP and Brosnan get the deal! Brosnan tells SJP of his feelings for her. SJP replies by thanking him (?!) but saying she loves her family too much and Brosnan should date SJP’s single friend. He does, and the unrealism of it all is befuddling. SJP tells her boss (Kelsey Grammer) that she won’t travel on the weekends anymore and needs to spend more time with her family. Grammer accepts the ultimatum, but only because SJP won her big deal. SJP and Kinnear make up, and all is well.
In sum, here is what I liked about the movie:
- The supporting cast delivers quality performances. Pierce Brosnan is decently slimy, Christina Hendricks is great as SJP’s best friend, and Olivia Munn’s deadpan humor is the best part of the movie.
- The movie raises awareness of the obstacles women face daily in the workplace. Meyers’ character represents many of the various ways men demean and exert superiority to women in the office. In a similar vein, Brosnan maneuvers himself to take credit for SJP’s ideas to his boss and cast aside SJP. At the last minute, he changes his mind and gives SJP full credit. This is how things should be, but not the way the world usually works.
And here is (some of) what I disliked:
- SJP’s performance was terrible. She often delivers lines with the emotion and pitch of a child, and her performance was nominated for a Razzie. It’s a shame, because irl SJP seems like a great person who’s made numerous contributions to publishing, ballet, and the arts.
- The movie leans heavily on stereotypes. Meyers represents all of toxic masculinity, while Grammer is the perfectly reasonable boss and all other men are quite pleasant. Likewise, there is a momster character who dresses to the nines, works out six hours daily, and has endless time for her kids. Needless to say, people are much more complex irl.
- The ending sends two worrying messages. First, it suggests a naive “bend but don’t break” approach to handling extramarital affairs. Second, it says that women can sacrifice to raise a family only after “making it” in their career. Societal pressures and industry practice make this the current norm, but I hope we can push to change this. Let’s have more dads stay home or work expectations changed, instead of adorning the status quo with a bright, glittery bow.
Richard Reddy Rears Rowdy Rugrats
As the character Richard Reddy, Greg Kinnear plays one of his better on-screen dads. At the movie’s outset I wasn’t so sure, since his routine is to let SJP handle the kids in the morning while he dashes off to work. But it becomes clear he steps in after school by picking up the kids, feeding them, and often putting them to bed. Greg shows some typical dad traits–namely, frugality, corner-cutting, and resourcefulness–for which SJP chides him. For example, he doesn’t keep lists and won’t sign his 2 yo up for speech therapy. He also wants to find a new nanny who shows up on time and is worth the money. Later, Greg is in a pinch and uses a recommended babysitter he’s never met. She falls asleep on the job. SJP defends the current nanny as more useful than Greg (umm…no), but Greg clearly loses the babysitter battle.
Good dad aside, Greg’s performance was average. Some user reviews praised Kinnear’s performance as the best part of the movie. One even said “Greg Kinnear is so manly in this film I actually found him a bit strong and handsome.” Ok, sure. But I found his screen time too limited to make optimal use of Greg. I did have two favorite Greg scenes. The first was at his parents’ house for Thanksgiving. SJP has sworn to not answer her phone but as she receives call-after-call from work she eventually caves. Greg looks at her with the perfect, sorrowful balance of “I knew this would happen but I hoped against hope” as she finally picks up the phone. The second was in his climatic fight with SJP. This fight ranks as “second-tier angry” for Greg, but he’s always at his best when arguing and losing his temper. Watch the scene to see Greg say “that’s a weirdly vivid denial,” then promptly forget this movie.
- We need more movies about working moms, and the sacrifices they make to juggle career and family! Watch Two Days, One Night but skip I Don’t Know How She Does It.
- I Don’t Know highlights some of the obstacles women face in the workplace and features many good acting performances, but also features a terrible performance by Sarah Jessica Parker, leans heavily on stereotypes and caricatures, and sends troubling messages about women-in-the-workplace and extramarital affairs.
- Greg Kinnear gives a great dad-vibe to his character Richard Reddy, but delivers a merely average performance. He has moments and gets to yell (a little bit), but loses the screen-time war to Pierce Brosnan.
- Next-up: I Googled “Greg Kinnear Christmas movie” and all the top hits were Dear God. The trailer shows minimal signs of Christmas, but I take this as a sign to now watch the movie largely responsible for launching this project!
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