Sunday, 11 June 2017

Movie Review: I Don't Know How She Does It

(Warning: Plot spoilers ahead.)
The 2011 movie that provides a snapshot of society today

Last night I watched I Don't Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker in the lead role of Kate Reddy, a working woman, a wife and a mother of two (in no particular order). The plotline is pretty simple and straightforward, with no unexpected twists. Yet, it's extremely watchable for the simple reason that so many families across the world can identify with the situation it portrays.

A family with young children and both parents working has a number of challenges before it in terms of juggling the demands of the two offices and the home. In spite of the great strides made by society in recognising and accommodating these challenges, women still end up taking on a greater share of the burden (i.e., what's known as "emotional labour", not just the actual execution of tasks but the remembering, planning, coordinating, worrying aspect of them). The husband Richard played by Greg Kinnear is probably quite typical. He's generally supportive and tries to pull his weight, but there's more that he can in fact do. Towards the end of the movie, he does realise this and makes an effort to take more ownership of some tasks.

I was happy to see many things in this movie.

One was the realistic portrayal of positive behaviour, as opposed to the cliched portrayal of the negative. This extended to both male and female characters.

Among the males, there was of course the office jerk Chris Bunce, played by Seth Meyers. But while such characters doubtless exist in real life, he was balanced by much more supportive men, such as Kate's husband, her immediate boss Clark Cooper (played by Kelsey Grammer), and another senior executive Jack Abelhammer, played by Pierce Brosnan. Personally, I've seen more nice guys than jerks in offices. Most bosses I've come across have been reasonable and fair in their expectations from their direct reports (whether male or female), and human in their empathy and ability to understand the problems of employees with families. (Or maybe that's because I've never worked on the trading floor of a Wall Street firm.)

Among the females, the negative side was similarly cliched. Kate's mother-in-law Marla (played by Jane Curtin) could be counted on to subtly disparage Kate's choice to pursue a career at every turn, and to guilt-trip her about any perceived failing on the home front, such as her two year old son who hadn't yet begun to speak. And there were a couple of "perfect" mums who didn't work but stayed at home to look after their families, one of whom (played by Busy Philipps) could be relied on for catty soundbites. Yet they were more than balanced by supportive women, such as Kate's almost robotic and workaholic assistant Momo Hahn (played by Olivia Munn), and best friend and single mum Allison Henderson (played by Christina Hendricks). The latter could be trusted to frame Kate's many difficult situations from a sympathetic angle.

In both cases, the movie didn't deliberately stack the deck against the main character just to make a point.

It was also good to see that the movie had a positive mood overall. You know that the lead character will manage to score all those goals eventually. The narrative wasn't despairing, whining or excessively preachy, although its use of negative characters to make various points was often unsubtle.

I found myself unreservedly sympathetic to the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker. I have previously only seen Parker in Sex and the City, and didn't like her character much in that movie. I thought she was a spoiled and entitled woman with only imaginary problems. The current movie featured a character with much more substance.

On the negative side, I thought the movie went a little too far in the opposite direction when it tried to be sympathetic towards working women. It ended up caricaturing stay-at-home mums, and I thought that was unfair, because the choice of whether women should pursue professional careers or be homemakers should be theirs, to be worked out with their families. It's not for others to judge. If anything, the great lesson of the modern world is to respect individual choices, so the movie did some judging of its own, even as it made the case against judging.

The portrayal of Momo Hahn made me slightly uncomfortable. I think the positive points earned by the movie on the gender angle might be negated by some insensitivity on the race angle. There was a discernible stereotype there about hard-working but emotionally deficient Asians. Movie-makers should watch that.

There were a couple of areas in which the movie could have been even better.

They should have left out the bit where Jack Abelhammer expresses a romantic interest in Kate. The movie was just fine as it was, and such an angle, although quickly shut down, was nevertheless a distraction.

Also, I believe it would not have been out of place for either Kate or her husband Richard to provide some bracing advice to their school-going daughter that she had better get used to making small sacrifices instead of acting entitled and precious about not having her mother available to her at all times. Having grown up with a working mother myself, I understand that the advantages to the family in being able to afford jam in addition to bread and butter (thanks to a double income) far outweigh the occasional inconvenience. Besides, even setting aside the financial benefit, careers are fulfilling to intelligent and capable women, so why aren't they entitled to them? Children should be made aware of these ideas.

In sum, I thought this was a landmark film that captured a crucial snapshot of life in the early 21st century for millions of families around the world. It's socially relevant and authentic, and I'm sure this will be referenced from time to time in future years.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Epilogue: I thought this frame from one of the comics in my collection (which I re-read after seeing the Wonder Woman movie) was quite relevant to the topic of working mothers.

WW could equally stand for 'Working Woman'

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