The only words spoken more often than the title phrase in "I Don't Know How She Does It" are "thank you." That's because Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a people-pleaser at heart who takes for granted neither the opportunities she's given at her job nor the people she relies on, like considerate husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) and nanny Paula (Jessica Szohr), to help take care of her two young children as she's swept off to one meeting and business trip after the next. Kate isn't willing to give up her professional aspirations, but she also refuses to be anything but the best parent she can be. As directed by Douglas McGrath (2006's "Infamous
"), "I Don't Know How She Does It" makes the comforting point that no one is perfect, something that parents will especially appreciate. At the same time, Kate is portrayed as so busy that she barely shares the screen for more than a few seconds at a time with her kids, the joys and complexities of motherhood lost amidst a lot of stress and guilt at being pulled in a million different directions at once. The film, then, highlighted by another warm and vivacious performance from Sarah Jessica Parker (2010's "Sex and the City 2
"), remains pleasant but consistently rather bland, a light, low-key Lifetime movie with an A-list star and wide theatrical distribution.
Kate is harried but proudly dedicated, a working mother juggling two kids, 6-year-old Emily (Emma Rayne Lyle) and 2-year-old Ben (Julius and Theodore Goldberg), a supportive if marginally neglected husband, and a demanding but rewarding mid-level position at a Boston investment firm. When hot-shot New York banker Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) shows interest in her proposal, Kate is faced with the biggest break of her career. With this, however, comes an added work load and at least three days of travel each week as she and Jack collaborate on closing a major deal. When yet another promise to her kids is broken during a rare family vacation, Kate begins to realize something's gotta give. She's an amazing multitasker, but she's sadly without super powers when it comes to finding balance and happiness in all facets of her life.
"I Don't Know How She Does It" was written by Aline Brosh McKenna (2010's "Morning Glory
"), based on Allison Pearson's novel, and it's a slice-of-life that locates certain common truths about its subject without daring to become the least bit hard-hitting. In one respect, the film is admirable for avoiding soap opera melodrama and focusing on Kate's more authentic day-to-day triumphs and tribulations. When she and the handsome, charming widower Jack hit it off as friends as well as business partners, the viewer shrinks in his or her seat fearing a mean-spirited extramarital romantic subplot. Fortunately, Kate is secure enough in her devotion to Richard to not let that happen. Thus, when Richard airs his hang-ups late in the proceedings and expresses a desire to spend quality time with his wife over conversations about more than, as he calls them, "logistics," it feels especially urgent and authentic. Kate and Richard are great when they are together, but they need to more often find the time to get that chance.
Director Douglas McGrath brings sincerity to Kate's plight and a little acerbic humor to the varied interludes where the other mother characters around the fringes of the story speak to the camera about their views on being a mother. Busy Philipps (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You
") is particularly good in these scenes as a superficial stay-at-home super-mom who spends her days at the gym. Mini-conflicts, like Kate trying to pass off a store-bought pie as homemade for her daughter's bake sale, or being stricken with lice during an important meeting, or accidentally sending an embarrassing email to a colleague rather than her girlfriend, are funny on their own if edging toward sitcom territory. Beyond just watching Kate run from one duty to the next, the film hasn't many places to go and promptly ends before the 90-minute mark. It is always best to not prolong the inevitable, particularly when said film so quickly runs out of avenues to explore within its limited three-month time frame, but it is also telling about how deeply writer McKenna bothered to delve when she sat down to pen the screenplay.
What is never in doubt is Sarah Jessica Parker, an asset to most any film she appears. Identifiable, loose, sweetly amusing and emotionally available, she gives it her all and comes up with a female protagonist who seems three-dimensional even though the script would probably argue otherwise. Sure, she's career-oriented and she adores her kids, but where's the meat to who she is, the darkness behind her mostly airy exterior? With less layers to dig into than she deserves, Parker makes up for it with a fierce integrity that makes her impossible to dislike. Even when she might be doing what's wrong, she just wants what's best. "I Don't Know How She Does It" empathizes with Kate, but opts for skimming the surface of her quandaries rather than exploring them more substantially. Ultimately, not even its makers seem to understand how she does it.