McGrath: I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011)
The Sex and the City films were always meant to comprise a trilogy, but they ended prematurely when Kim Cattrall pulled out of the third instalment. In lieu of that closing chapter, I Don’t Know How She Does It is likely the closest we’ll ever get to a third Sex and the City film. Only Sarah Jessica Parker stars in this adaptation of Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel of the same name, but this is still very much a part of the extended Carrie universe, poised midway between Sex and the City and the reboot of Sex and the City. As the protracted title suggests, it also forms part of the trend towards “manual” romcoms in the late 2000s, often based on self-help manuals with similarly declarative names, such as He’s Just Not That Into You and What To Expect When You’re Expecting. These films represented a more cynical and strategic approach towards romance that, in time, would morph further into the “event” romcoms of the mid-late-2010s, such as Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.
While I Don’t Know How She Does It is based on a novel, it’s still in the vein of this more manual-oriented romcom, offering a guide to motherhood for white women who came of age with Sex and the City. Parker plays Kate Reddy, a Boston mother of two, who works as an investment banker while trying to find quality time with her husband Richard, an architect played by Greg Kinnear. Their marriage, and family, reaches breaking point when Kate decides to take on a new investment project, which requires her to spend the occasional night or weekend in New York City, to liaise with Jack Albehammer, a banker played by Pierce Brosnan.
From the outset, this is clearly a part of the extended Sex and the City universe. Kate’s voiceovers and direct addresses to camera are carbon copys of the first season in particular, while the few tweaks to the Carrie formula just reiterate how indebted this all is to Candace Bushnell’s original vision. We might be in Boston, but the drama revolves around New York, while Carrie has effectively married Steve in this slightly alternative universe. Whereas Sex and the City fetishized investment bankers above all other classes of men, Parker now plays the investment banker – and the film’s repulsive ideological core lies in its vision of banking.
Before we even get to that, however, it’s worth noting that the film’s vision of investment banking is totally implausible. Kate’s basic shtick is that she’s both an investment banker and a full-time mother, barely attending a meeting without a dummy falling out of her bag, and barely sitting through a meeting without having to leave abruptly or prematurely to attend to her kids. This kind of behaviour simply wouldn’t cut it in the cut-throat world of investment banking, which is famous for advocating a work-sleep balance, rather than the work-life balance Kate is striving for here – the relic of a much older model of the corporate workplace.
Even if it were plausible, however, Kate’s shtick feels strategic. In the words of Susan Adams, a prominent workplace psychologist for Forbes, she’s the narcissist – the colleague who always talks about their home life (either their relationship or their children) to broker sympathy and moderate expectations about their work flow. Kate does that very well here, always talking herself down so she can express surprise at her achievements. The result is pretty noxious, since it basically involves Kate monetising the very family values that she claims to be protecting. This, Adams suggests, is often the way with this narcissistic typology.
However, the film is most repulsive in its vision of investment banking as a broader field, although this is once again personified by Kate. We’re meant to believe that she got into this sector to protect and promote retirement funds: “I got into investing because I watched my father gamble away every paycheck he ever got.” Without the slightest shred of irony, trading futures here guarantees a future for the little guy, personified in a revolting scene in which Kate and Jack decide to slum it by going tenpin bowling for the night. When they join a local team, a bowler assures them that “if you win this for us, we’ll forgive you for being a banker.”
In other words, this is the kind of film that simply didn’t land after the GFC, in the same way a certain kind of celebrity affectation would never be the same again after the COVID-19 pandemic – and after the infamous “Imagine” video. Even five years earlier it might have been politely tolerated, but at this precise moment in time it was totally reviled – and for good reason. In the end, Kate simply wants an ultra-wealthy family without having to genuinely work for it, or work proportionately for it – and that’s the Carrie princess fantasy in a nutshell.
I suppose you could say that the film is aspirational at heart – that it offers working mothers the fantasy of seeing their very real struggles writ large in a safe space of obscene capital. The problem, though, is that even at this level there’s no real tension in the film. After all, Kate and Richard only have to share domestic duties for a couple of months (a couple of weeks really) before her deal with Jack comes through. And, when it’s done, it’s done – Kate is promoted to a level of seniority in the investment firm that means she no longer has to worry about her work-life balance any more. For all she’s supposedly hanging on by the skin of her teeth, in reality she has an entire infrastructure supporting her – including the entire film itself, which was released at precisely the least flattering moment for its bizarre blind spots.
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