Directed by Douglas McGrath
Adapted Screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna
(Based on the novel by Allison Pearson)
Principal Actors: Sarah Jessica Parker with Pierce Brosnan & Greg Kinnear
Summary: Sarah Jessica Parker plays “Kate Reddy,” a bundle of nervous energy who is burning her candle at both ends and threatening to flame out.
At home, Kate has a husband and two kids plus a nanny, a mother-in-law, and a row of empty little bags she must fill with birthday goodies. It’s a mostly female world dense with tons of sticky-looking stuff of every conceivable shape, size and texture.
At work, Kate has a prestigious new client and a hyper-critical assistant, plus a boss, a rival, and a stream of text messages all marked “urgent.” It’s a mostly male world of rooms with highly-polished surfaces and edges that meet on the perpendicular.
In the end, Kate learns nothing’s perfect, her husband learns that checking something off a list can feel really good, and her boss learns the value “Work/Life Balance.” Bottom line: We’re all in this together!
“Jan, don’t keep making the better the enemy of the good!” My husband always tells me this, over and over again. After almost thirty years of wedded bliss, he still hopes to plant this mantra in my head.
Back in my consulting days, my mentor used to scold me: “Jan, stop being such a perfectionist!” “Don’t worry,” I would argue, “I know when the deadline is.” I thought if I worked right up to the edge of metaphorical midnight (but never went over it) I would be rewarded for having everything “under control.” But this behavior, in a male-dominated business world, almost cost me my job. In his first performance review, my mentor wrote: “Jan’s success in the firm will depend on her ability to curb her excessive enthusiasm.” “Excessive enthusiasm…” Who knew?
That was a long time ago, and I’m older and wiser and definitely a bit more relaxed now. So the day I went to the Lake Street Screening Room to see I Don’t Know How She Does It with my colleagues, I just eased into “the moment” and let myself laugh.
According to the latest membership list, the Chicago Film Critics Association has 55 members of whom 48 are male (meaning 87.3% of my local colleagues are guys). And so, like usual, most of the people with me in the screening room that day were guys.
Sometimes this puts a damper on me. During one recent screening, I bit down hard on my sweater to prevent the guys around me from hearing me cry. But within minutes, I was laughing so hard at Sarah Jessica Parker’s antics in I Don’t Know How She Does It (aka I Don’t Know) that I decided to ignore everyone else around me and just enjoy myself. And I continued to laugh myself silly, even as it became obvious that no one else in the room was laughing with me.
Too bad, but that’s their problem! I Don’t Know is a really insightful look at modern life. As I told the publicist the next day: “I laughed (a lot); I cried (a little); I had a great time!”
Parker plays “Kate Reddy.” At home, Kate’s primary relationships are with husband “Richard” (Greg Kinnear) and mother-in-law “Marla” (Jane Curtain). At work, Kate’s primary relationships are with client “Jack” (Pierce Brosnan) and research assistant “Momo” (Olivia Munn). Walking with her as Kate crosses back and forth between worlds is her best friend “Allison” (Christina Hendricks), also balancing career/family obligations. Dozens of characters swirl around these principals: just like in real life, the domestic realm is filled with kids, nannies, and lots of female extras, whereas the professional realm is filled with bosses, rivals, and lots of male extras.
In this case, the plot really is perfunctory; the primary goal of the narrative is to give audience members an opportunity to walk in Kate’s shoes for a while and learn, just a she learns, that in the end, we’re all in this together. “It’s still going to be a mess,” Kate frets just before the final credits roll. “Yes,” Richard agrees, “but it will be our mess.” Amen to that!
This is the 5th Aline Brosh McKenna screenplay to make it to the multiplex, but even though critics tear into her every time, she persists. Her most successful screenplay was her fabulous adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. As the chart below shows, Prada is the only one of McKenna’s screenplays to score a “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes:
|2004||Laws of Attraction||18%|
|2006||The Devil Wears Prada||76%|
|2011||I Don’t Know||18%|
And alas, even in the Prada case, success was attributed almost entirely to Meryl Streep. But as I wrote in my review (with considerable outrage): “Yes, Meryl Streep does an extraordinary job as ‘Miranda Priestly.’ But remember folks: Streep did not write her own lines, direct herself, or dress herself, and while she certainly had input, her job as an actor is to ‘embody’ a character created by the people behind the camera (most especially, in this case, screenwriter McKenna).”
I have liked all of McKenna’s films. Pick any derogatory diminutive you like—Mom-Com, Rom-Com, whatever—McKenna is determined to keep telling her own first-hand truth, the truth of an educated, intelligent, ambitious woman deliberately burning her candle at both ends in hopes of achieving simultaneous success at home and at work.
And while most of her characters live solidly middle class lives of some privilege, genuine tragedy is always present in the back story. The relationship between the sisters in 27 Dresses, for example, was shaped by the early loss of their mother, and in I Don’t Know Kate tells us that her mother’s life was ruined by her father’s gambling addiction. Sure, McKenna’s characters are lucky to have these specific problems and not others—even Miranda Priestly’s high-stakes world is devoid of actual Nazis—but McKenna’s bittersweet sense of humor has clearly been shaped by centuries of tzuris.
Kudos to Santo Loquasto (Oscar-nominated multiple times for his work on Woody Allen’s films) for the love he put into I Don’t Know’s visual design. At home, there’s stuff everywhere, lots of colors and textures, dense and layered. And it all looks sticky, as if coated with barely visible gook from the powdered sugar Kate blows over her pie. At work, of course, all the surfaces are spare and linear; edges meet at the perpendicular, always cool, clean and highly polished.
Nevertheless, the chief design element, of course, is Kate. The “Kate” of I Don’t Know is totally different from the “Carrie” persona Sarah Jessica Parker created for Sex and the City. Carrie is super-thin because she’s a fashionista; Kate is super-thin because she’s propelled by nervous energy. She rarely wastes time worrying about her office “look;” finding something clean in her closet matters more than finding something stylish.
Flying everywhere in every direction, Kate’s hair tells the tale: she’s not chic, she’s frazzled. Real life is often a mess, but it’s our mess, and none of the women I know personally would want it any other way.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (9/16/11)—Special for WomenArts (www.WomenArts.org)
Photo Credit: © Craig Blankenhorn/The Weinstein Company