It's that age-old question -- can a woman make it in a man’s world? And the answer, according to Sarah Jessica Parker and Pierce Brosnan’s new film I Don’t Know How She Does (which opens nationwide on Friday, September 16z) is that certainly she can, provided she’s willing to give up everything that makes her a wife, a mother and a woman.
How do you like those odds, eh? Sadly, 10 minutes into this big screen adaptation of Allison Pearson’s blockbuster New York Times best-selling novel, you might want to take a glance at your iPhone to remind yourself what century it is. It’s a bit of a shock to have that message broadcast in 2011.
Here’s another age-old question I’d like to ask -- why does all the guts and humanity that makes you fall in love with a debut British novel always evaporate like hot steam when it’s bought and filmed by an American production company?
It’s not that the story of I Don’t Know How She Does It is so hopelessly outdated that you can’t recognize the very real issues it explores. Enough of the scenarios that made the original book such a nervy hit survive the transfer to the U.S.
For a start there’s the bright, brittle voice of Kate Reddy herself (Parker) and the quality of the observations she makes about her life and work. But what seemed wise and witty in the British context seems glib and self-congratulatory in the American one.
There’s a good reason for that. In Pearson’s original book Kate lives in a trendy but recognizable north London home with her architect husband (who makes considerably less money than her). Kate’s lifestyle, while comfortable, isn’t completely unattainable.
But in the Sarah Jessica Parker version Kate lives in a Victorian brownstone townhouse on a leafy lane in Manhattan, which means -- let’s be honest -- that she’s already richer than Croesus. Under those tony circumstances it might have been more appropriate to call the film I Don’t Know How She Can’t Do It, She’s Loaded.
The film asks us to identify with a working wife and mother who always looks like she’s just stepped out of Bloomingdales in a gorgeous new Christian Dior two-piece, by way of the spa and the hair salon naturally. Whatever reaction the producers of this film were hoping for, the one they have created is -- are you kidding me?
In recent years there has been a growing predictability to the kind of films that Parker has signed up for. They usually involve spirited, healthy, wealthy, fashionable, progressive New Yorkers – led, of course, by her iconic role as Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City -- who have to deal with a few Challenges, Pitfalls and Set Backs that only serve to make the Happy End even more assured.
They’re this generation’s Depression-era escapism, in other words, but because they’re so howlingly fraudulent they always end up feeling much more depressing than escapist.
The structure of the original storyline that made Pearson’s book such a hit is still pretty much in place. Kate still works in finance (this time in New York City) as she co-raises her five-year-old and her toddler with the help of her devoted and emotionally available husband Richard.
In this role Greg Kinnear, one of the most dependably charismatic screen actors in the country, doesn’t have much to do other than look concerned or happy or concerned/happy. In terms of the battle of the sexes I suppose this represents progress in a way, since tradition had it the other way around from the earliest days of Hollywood.
But in a film that wants you to think about the inequalities between the sexes in the working world, it doesn’t help if that storyline is actually cementing them, does it?
As Kate struggles with the complexities of wanting it all and facing consequences for her selfish ambition we’re introduced to her assistant Momo (Olivia Munn). Momo, it becomes clear, is a humorless fembot, a Harvard grad with a gaping personality deficit.
She’s also the film’s image of the compromise a woman has to make in order to have a successful career. Momo lives on her own, childless, friendless, loveless and unfulfilled.
What she needs to be truly happy, the film not so subtly suggests, is A Man, and A Child (or one or the other, take your pick). Barf.
If you haven’t thrown a tomato at the screen by the time these storylines announce themselves you’ll be overcome by the irresistible urge by the time Momo announces that she’s pregnant.
By this point the women in the seats next to me at the private screening were snorting like cocaine addicts. I understood their derision.
I Don’t Know How She Does It wants to express solidarity with working wives and mothers everywhere. And it does this by patronizing them from a terrific height.
It wouldn’t be a comedy drama without a romantic complication, and in I Don’t Know How She Does It it arrives via Ireland’s dependably elegant Pierce Brosnan.
Brosnan plays Jack Ablehammer (a CEO invented so that we can snigger at his double entendre of a last name) who’s outwardly a cutthroat capitalist but inwardly a big blossom -- and aren’t they all, at some level?
Brosnan does well with this underwritten role by injecting some of the class that comes from the man and not the movie.
Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, who did the duties for The Devil Wears Prada, has taken a heartfelt and breezy novel and turned into a hard to care about dramedy.
It may be unfair, but it’s quite hard to believe Parker’s future could be threatened by anything more vexing than discovering they don’t have those darling Louboutins in her size.
I’m afraid the shadow of Sex and the City, and its unimaginable international success even after two verifiable big screen turkeys failed to capsize it, has descended like a mummy’s curse on Parker.
If the director wanted us to sympathize with her perhaps her home (and even her gorgeous wood paneled brokerage office) shouldn’t have looked like they were angling for a color spread in Vogue. Because just like Vogue’s legendarily forbidding editor Anna Wintour, Parker’s Kate may be a working woman in a real sense, but it’s just not the sort of work or remuneration that most women (or men) can relate to.
“Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman,” the film concludes, conceding that it is a man’s world after all, and that if you try to run with the boys your choice is either become one yourself or cede the field to your more ambitious successor.
That’s a message delivered piping hot from 1950, if you think about it, and it’s a just a wonder that the talents involved with this project decided that it’s a message worth broadcasting in 2011.