In the wake of Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel The Devil Wears Prada, the publishing world saw a dramatic boom in an already-extant subgenre of chick-lit: The swoony romance between a young, awkward New York ingénue and the bland Perfect Man who falls for her in spite of her copious faults, mostly because he doesn’t have enough personality or agency to engage with them. I Don’t Know How She Does It, the film adaptation of Allison Pearson’s bestselling 2002 novel of the same name, is in all ways a continuation of that brand of story, taken a few years down the line after the traditional happily-ever-after. Sarah Jessica Parker plays the clumsy, horribly embarrassing, but theoretically endearing protagonist who’s trying to balance her high-powered career and her family; Greg Kinnear is her terminally vanilla, generically charming husband. In theory, the film is another hoary exploration of the pressures of modern womanhood, but in practice, it offers the exact same thing as those NYC ingénue books: cookie-cutter wish-fulfillment and lifestyle porn for easily pleased, lonely romantics.
Director Douglas McGrath (Emma, Infamous) and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses) bring I Don’t Know How She Does It to the screen in spritely, bustling fashion, cramming the storytelling with jokey voiceovers, quirky freeze-frame asides, onscreen text pop-ups, and faux-documentary confessionals directly to the camera. The confessionals illustrate how fulfilling Parker’s hectic have-it-all lifestyle really is, as various subsidiary characters reveal themselves as shallow dunces by bragging about their one-sided lives, focused exclusively on home life or work. Meanwhile, though Parker’s best friend insists in voiceover that she’s fantastically capable both as a finance-industry go-getter and as a supermom, Parker is actually miserable about neglecting Kinnear and their two kids while she travels around the country, working to broker a high-end deal with investment wizard Pierce Brosnan.
Like Parker’s character, I Don’t Know How She Does It wants to have it all, and has trouble committing to a course of action. Parker is meant to be seen as smart, ambitious, and capable, but for comedy’s sake, she trips over herself, hikes her skirt above her waist to adjust her underwear while not realizing she’s on a video conference call, misidentifies how many kids she has, and gets the world’s most exaggerated case of head lice. The film’s message is ostensibly that modern women can have it all if their priorities are straight, but that thought somehow coexists with the off-putting homily “Trying to be a man is a waste of a woman.” And the film’s overcrowded, overstructured franticness undercuts its attempts at soulfulness and meaning at every turn. In some ways it’s a sweet comedy, and it’s packed with enough gags that many of them inevitably hit home, particularly those involving Olivia Munn as a none-too-bright up-and-comer who sees Parker as a terrifying example of how emotional attachments ruin a perfectly good career. But under all the flailing, it embodies yet another cliché: The story of a cell-phone-addicted parent learning about the joys of stopping to smell the diapers.