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Train Wreck on the Mommy Track

In an effort to keep a handle on her increasingly out-of-control life, finance executive and mother of two Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker), the heroine of I Don’t Know How She Does It, makes lists: plan daughter’s birthday party, finish quarterly financial reports, make appointment at salon to have dark roots touched up … you get the idea. In that spirit, then, I offer the following list of helpful hints to the filmmakers for the next time they adapt a best-selling novel for the big screen (assuming someone is foolish enough to give them the opportunity again):

1. Don’t undersell your protagonist. The Kate Reddy of Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel is a hedge fund manager in London’s financial district, and her architect husband Richard (Greg Kinnear in the film) struggles with the fact that she is the family’s main breadwinner. The filmmakers appear to share that uneasiness: in transplanting the story across the pond, they have inexplicably turned Kate into some sort of non-descript financial analyst at a boutique firm in Boston, whose breadwinner status is due to the fact that her husband started his own firm just before the recession hit. Even worse, Kate’s always thanking other people (i.e. men) for her success and practically begs her husband’s permission to take a demanding but high-profile assignment. Excuse me? An American Kate should have been a hotshot hedge fund manager on Wall Street, someone who worked her way to the top from humble beginnings and doesn’t apologize for it.

Instead of letting Kate be who she is — member of an elite group, a woman in the top tier of a testosterone-soaked profession who’s also raising children — this lot have tried to transform her into Everywoman, rather than trusting the audience to find common ground with a protagonist with whom they might share little in common.

2. Use conflict to keep the story interesting. The Kate of the novel faces some real quandaries: she loves her children but is a little frightened by how much they need her; she contemplates an affair with a client even though it would be ruinous professionally and personally; she serves as the face of diversity in her company despite knowing there’s no actual corporate commitment to it. The movie Kate, on the other hand, has been sanitized beyond all recognition — or interest, frankly. She wants only to spend more time with her children, turns down a romantic offer from that very attractive client (Pierce Brosnan) without hesitation, and in the face of a constant barrage of insincere people uttering the title refrain, rarely seems tempted to retort that nobody would wonder at a man’s ability to combine career and family.

3. If you’re making a comedy, be funny. I realize this may seem obvious, but after sitting through painfully unfunny scenes of Parker attempting ditzy physical humor (Kate with head lice! Kate having a wardrobe malfunction!), I feel it’s a worthwhile reminder. The choice to consolidate a couple of the book’s characters into someone named Momo Hahn, and to have Olivia Munn, comedy’s current It girl, play her as cold and sarcastic, is also a misfire. Munn’s Momo comes across as a not-very-credible stereotype in a film already full of generic characters.

The film seems afraid to offend in pursuit of humor: whereas Kate and Momo’s revenge against their misogynistic colleague, Chris Bunce (Seth Meyers) — a central plot element of the book — could have been mined for dark laughs, it’s entirely absent from the film. Instead, ladylike Kate gets her vengeance on Bunce by proving her worth to their boss (Kelsey Grammer). What rubbish.

4. Don’t break the fourth wall. Didn’t anybody associated with this film ever take a writing class? Rule #1: You’re supposed to show, not tell. Having Busy Philipps as competitive stay-at-home mom Wendy Best address the viewer directly to pass judgment on Kate breaks the story’s momentum, creates no interaction between characters, and — most importantly — forecloses the possibility that Kate’s harshest critic is herself. And watching characters speak directly to the camera about the double standards faced by women in the workplace makes a moviegoer feel as if she’s sitting in a freshman sociology class. This is not a documentary. Write dialogue, not diatribes.

5. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I can understand, if not endorse, the filmmakers’ decision to transform Kate into a mutual fund manager trying to help people save for retirement: in the wake of global economic collapse, hedge fund managers have definitely lost some of the sheen they had a decade ago. But the filmmakers haven’t simply changed Kate’s profession. They’ve distorted (or perhaps simply failed to grasp) the entire premise of the novel, which was essentially: something’s got to give. At the end of the book, Kate has risked her family life, made some difficult choices, and may have figured out a way to have it all — on her terms. But movie Kate, whose problems are never as big to start with, lives in a fairyland meritocracy where she earns the right to a flexible schedule by showing what a great employee she is. Movie Kate rarely even seems to question the concept of having it all, or whether the price may be too high. The overall effect ends up being that of a Lifetime movie of the week, instead of a brutally honest and hilarious confession.

I Don’t Know How She Does It. Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Christina Hendricks, Olivia Munn, Kelsey Grammer, Busy Philipps, and Seth Meyers star in a film directed by Douglas McGrath, written by Aline Brosh McKenna, and based on the novel by Allison Pearson.

Rated PG-13 for sexual innuendo and mild profanity; running time: 89 minutes.

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