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A comedy featuring women in the big city, their relationships, and Sarah Jessica Parker—sounds much more like a certain TV show that spurred on a second sexual revolution than a movie that would communicate anything remotely positive. Surprisingly, I Don’t Know How She Does It contains a few admirable, albeit imperfect, messages that are timely and important for modern American culture to hear. Unfortunately, those messages are thoroughly smothered by a profusion of sexual innuendo and jokes, offensive language, and a matter-of-fact endorsement of amoral lifestyles.
From the get-go, this film seizes the viewer’s attention with a storytelling style that could be described as The Office meets Sex and the City. Starting with the first scene, characters frequently talk directly to viewers in snippets throughout the film, offering their true thoughts or sometimes humorous takes on the central character. That character is Kate Reddy—wife, mother, and successful finance executive. Before we meet Kate, we’re treated to some of her acquaintances’ opinions about her and then we get the familiar Parker narration as Kate, introducing her story.
Kate has an extremely hectic life, as she’s one of many working moms who struggle to balance motherhood, marriage, and business prowess in an exhausting juggling act. We’re told that Kate is a better juggler than most, but even she has her limits. The plot of I Don’t Know focuses on the toughest patch in Kate’s life, when she gets too many balls in the air and risks dropping more than one.
Most of the increased stress in Kate’s life occurs because of the bigger opportunities that start coming her way at her job. In a career that already demands a lot of travel, Kate finally achieves the recognition she has sought for years, as she is chosen to pitch a project to a client. With this opportunity comes the demand for even more travel than usual, and the family responsibilities that are usually difficult to keep up with become nearly impossible to fulfill.
As indicated in the movie, Kate is hardly the only woman is this situation. Modern American culture has experienced a boom of working mothers, so Kate’s story tackles a highly relevant issue. What is the 21st-century workplace really like for moms? Can a mom have a successful career and a healthy, happy family? These are questions I Don’t Know attempts to answer with a clever humor that distinguishes this comedy from most recent offerings of the genre. Actual wit and originality, rather than clichéd and juvenile jocularity, form most of the laughable moments, while a compelling and well-developed story functions as the film’s dramatic arc.
I Don’t Know also boasts an impressive cast of veteran actors who live up to their reputations, as well as lesser-knowns who hit the humor mark in their challenging tongue-in-cheek roles. Though playing an unfamiliar role as a wife and mother, Parker as Kate is indelibly real, emotionally accessible, and charming—the qualities that helped make her such a popular actress. Greg Kinnear gives a convincing turn as Kate’s husband, while Pierce Brosnan manages to make his limited role of Kate’s handsome business associate, Jack, into a more nuanced character than was written. Olivia Munn stands out among the other supporting actors, bringing an unexpected relatable quality to Kate’s comically stiff and relationally-challenged assistant, Momo.
Much of the acting and writing talent, however, is wasted on the sexual humor that pervades the film. Initially, both content and comedy are refreshingly creative, finding humor and entertaining topics that are above the waist and out of the gutter. But as I Don’t Know progresses, the filmmakers’ seem to run out of ideas or perhaps just get too focused on what they really prefer, and viewers are doused with a steady stream of innuendo and oversexed culture.
If that were not enough to send discerning viewers heading the other way, the language would be. The s-word is used about ten times, along with other obscenities, while the Lord’s name is misused more than a dozen times. The actors blurt out “Oh my g—” or just “g—” seemingly as often as they speak, further endorsing society’s acceptance of this profanity as a harmless phrase.
In this way, the content brings an element of tragedy to what is supposed to be a lighthearted comedy. The tragedy comes when one encounters the unexpected positive messages, trying to crawl out from under the problematic elements. Marriage, for example, is represented well, as Kate and her husband share a realistically flawed but supportive and loving relationship. Given the casual treatment of sexual intimacy and even affairs encouraged by her friends (and laughed at by Kate herself), one might expect that Kate would be more cavalier with her marriage than she is and perhaps even open to having an extramarital fling if the situation arose.
[SPOILERS IN ALL THAT FOLLOWS] Such a temptation does arise when Jack falls in love with Kate and admits as much, apparently unconcerned by the fact that she is a married mother of two young children. Jack’s disregard of morality and his self-centered attitude are disconcerting, to say the least, but Kate comes through well, telling Jack that she loves her husband dearly and still wants a relationship with him. Kate really only ends up in this situation because of unwise choices in her association and burgeoning friendship with Jack, but at least she backpedals at the point of no return.
Another strong moment for the film comes when Kate discovers that Momo is pregnant (out of wedlock). Momo indicates that she’s going to abort her unwanted baby, but she ends up changing her mind because Kate tells her about the joys of motherhood and having a child. Yet as positive as this message may appear, it lacks the thrust of intention and grounding in authentic morality. Momo decides to keep her baby not because it would be evil and murder to abort the unborn child, but because she’s told there will be personal joy for her in having a child. Similarly, Kate says no to an affair not because she’s married and it would be morally wrong, but because she happens to still love her husband and is happiest with him. Thus, both of these “good” messages seem almost incidental, sadly reducing the power they could have had.
The only positive choice that is made for less selfish reasons is Kate’s ultimate decision to put her family before her job—a change she makes out of a desire to be more dependable and loving to her children, as well as to strengthen her marriage. Throughout the film, we see how much Kate’s career is at odds with her love for her family. Her daughter resents Kate’s frequent absences and experiences the pain of her mother breaking a promise to her, simply because of a job.
Kate seems to learn that breaking her word to her daughter because of work is unacceptable, but her solution is only to take the risk of telling her boss that she can’t travel on short notice, if she already made family plans. Kate says she’s okay with losing her job for the sake of her children’s happiness, should her boss dislike her new attitude. Yet even this seemingly admirable moment is undercut by the limitations that Kate puts on the degree to which she will sacrifice her wants.
She says to her husband, “me without this job isn’t me at all,” when she explains why she still intends to keep her career while trying to do better at meeting her family’s needs. If necessary, Kate will sacrifice her current job for them, but she will not give up having a job completely, even if that’s what her kids actually need. Ultimately, then, Kate really isn’t much better than she was at the beginning of the story—she’s yielded only a tiny risk of sacrifice, practically admitting that she still won’t give up her own happiness for her family’s. So much for the supposed character development. And so much for the uplifting message.
For a modern comedy with the makings of this one, it’s a surprise how close the story gets to conveying some positive messages. Even the handling of the working mother issue is much more balanced than one might expect and portrays realities one would think Hollywood might want to gloss over. But the moments of truth are so unwittingly hit and inadequately explained that they can’t begin to shine through the film’s more convincing endorsement of immoral and self-centered lifestyles (no matter how hard it tries to hide the selfishness of the latter). In the end, I’d say a renaming is in order. Let’s just be honest and call it, I Don’t Know Why She Does It.
Check out these movies instead:
Change of Plans (Muse Entertainment Enterprises, 2011)
Saving Sarah Cain (Believe Pictures, 2007)
Follow the Stars Home (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2001)