Since she’s click-clacked her stylish self to the top of Hollywood’s list of can-do, metropolitan actresses, it’s no wonder Sarah Jessica Parker was picked to fill the busy shoes of Kate Reddy, the multitasking, Boston-navigating working mom at the center of I Don’t Know How She Does It, an adaptation of Allison Pearson’s chick-lit bestseller. But in reality (a place of which this bumbling, regressive cartoon has nary the slightest concept), Parker is the worst choice for the role, and her casting is your first indication of the grating obviousness that bleeds through the entire operation. Another is the hiring of screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, whose Devil Wears Prada success has duped many a movie producer into thinking she’s got the Midas touch when it comes to yarns about sisters doing it for themselves in the big city. Such a notion didn’t work out so well with the McKenna-penned 27 Dresses or Morning Glory, and this time it leads to an irredeemable decoupage of clunky narrative devices, antiquated feminist leanings, rampant condescension, and bottom-of-the-barrel jokes, all of which aggressively negate the movie’s admirable aim to be a bit of chicken soup for the recessionary career mom’s soul.
Kate’s a middle-class ally playing on the enemy’s turf—a married mother of two working at a high-powered investment firm. She has plenty of stressors at work, like an obligatorily hardnosed boss (Kelsey Grammer) and a competitive peer whom she herself calls the “Designated Office Asshole” (Seth Meyers), or “DOA” for short, but the true challenges are all the dirty parental jobs, which the movie amplifies in its precious attempt to score relatability points. Armed with a bulging purse packed with stereotypical kiddie paraphernalia, and often rocking unkempt hair and tweed frocks with varying stains, Kate’s biggest fear is disappointing her kid’s kindergarten teacher, and she’s always racing to keep up with “the Momsters,” polished trophy wives who spend their days at the gym and—gasp!—actually bake. But somehow, someway, Kate does it all, and though the ship is bound to buckle by mainstream-movie decree, she amazes her best friend (Christina Hendricks), her husband (Greg Kinnear), and her new bigwig business partner (Pierce Brosnan), who lob juggling metaphors with fearless abandon, and who could fill your car bumper with novelty-shop zingers, such as “She can do in-laws without mixing vodka and Xanax!” and “A woman’s mind is like the inside of the control tower at O’Hare Airport!”
The witticisms are delivered via a suffocating glut of audience hand-holding, which includes constant doc-style confessionals, whimsical on-screen text, studio-audience sound effects, voices in Kate’s head, and voiceover narration. The latter, of course, is evidence enough of the casting snafu, as anyone expecting to have Parker convincingly recite the autobiography of anyone other than Carrie Bradshaw is living on another planet. For what it’s worth, Kate is Bradshaw in a blender: She still can’t cook, but she’s embraced the state of motherhood. She’s still all muscle and sinew, but gone are the frocks that cost her a month’s rent. Aping the breakage of the fourth wall circa season one of Sex and the City, she even schools the viewer on her daily grind, this time regarding how to avoid her boss instead of how to sleep with him. It’s unclear if director Douglas McGrath (Infamous, Emma) is trying to exploit these connections or feebly deflect them, but it ultimately matters little, as he allows countless plausibility-squashing idiocies to tumble forth, the mere transmitter of McKenna’s doozy of a screenplay.
If Kate’s character-friendly surname caught your eyes, keep rolling them. Brosnan’s dashing marital distraction is called Jack Abelhammer, while Kate’s can’t-go-wrong, pampered nemesis goes by Wendy Best (she’s played by Busy Phillipps, who, given the state of things, may well have been cast for nominal irony). Far, far more energy was spent on similar palm-to-the-forehead details than on the emotional sincerity of the story, which the movie adamantly runs from and then tries to scramble together after it’s too late. A poorly orchestrated screwball farce whose comic high point is a blink-and-miss-it sight gag (Kate’s deadpan, workaholic assistant, we learn, manages six computer monitors at once), it doesn’t even offer worthwhile diversion in place of what it avoids, such as a subplot about the assistant’s unplanned pregnancy, perhaps the only thread with real dramatic meat. It turns the clock back on female-centric films while committing the usual sins, making workplace equality into a dated “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” joke, and underwriting Kinnear’s poor husband to the point of fleshlessness. By the end, it takes the usual route of choosing family over the big, bad J-O-B, and gets so sickeningly sweet in its winter-set resolution that the white stuff falling from above might as well be Splenda.