Douglas McGrath’s new movie I Don’t Know How She Does It is based off of Allison Pearson’s wildly successful novel of the same name that was on The New York Times’ hardcover bestseller list for 23 weeks. Both mediums focus on the complicated life of Kate Reddy (played by an I'll admit it enjoyably perky Sarah Jessica Parker in the movie) who is the woman all working mothers want to be: smart determined and fiercely passionate about doing everything she can to balance her family with her high profile job at an investment banking firm. She’s the mom who’s thoughtful enough to try and distort a store-bought cherry pie with a rolling pin so it looks more homemade for her daughter’s bake sale and the one who finds joy in searching for a clean blouse that doesn’t have the marshmallows from her son’s Rice Krispies Treats soaked into it. Of course Kate dreads leaving her children each day but she loves her job very much and allows herself to part ways with them by concentrating on the belief that one day they’ll understand how much she genuinely wanted to go to work. And while it’s clear the movie’s goal is to humorously depict the lives of women who work and have families it shockingly shies away from ending the still-popular belief that women are best "pregnant barefoot and in the kitchen."
Within the first minute of the movie the fourth wall is broken -- and continues to break throughout the movie -- and several of Kate’s colleagues and friends verify that Kate is an outstanding mother and a supremely productive member of the work force (which was pretty unnecessary considering how we were just going to see all of Kate's talents anyway). Her friend Allison (played by Christina Hendricks) opens up a bit more than the others and unveils that even though Kate's totally great she really wasn't doing very well with her responsibilities last winter. Then we flash back three months and watch as Kate goes from being an unnoticed employee at her Boston firm to writing a proposal and catching the interest of Jack Abelhammer (Pierce Brosnan) at the branch’s New York office. Jack is enthusiastic about Kate’s ideas and decides he wants to take the proposal and present it to a major client which excites Kate because it would be great for her career. However the problem is the proposal needs a lot of work before it can be shown to anybody and Jack is careful to ask if Kate is comfortable traveling between Boston and New York and working day and night for two months until the whole thing is finished. In the back of her mind she knows she should be spending heaps more time with her family instead of agreeing to take on more responsibilities at work but she decides to do it anyway because as the saying goes “if it ain’t hard it ain’t worth it.”
So Kate and her assistant Momo (played by a finally enjoyable Olivia Munn) begin working overtime. She spends three days a week in New York and the other four days glued to her computer in Boston. When she does make plans with her kids to do something like build a snowman she ends up flaking out because something happens at the last minute regarding the proposal and she needs to drop everything to go work on it with Jack in New York. As angry as the kids are with their mom Kate’s husband Richard (Greg Kinnear) is even angrier because since his wife is away and working all the time he becomes the caregiver by default.
Now here’s where things get a little dicey: Richard is an unemployed architect and so I was surprised to watch him give his wife so much grief for working to keep their cute children fed. However the audience is supposed to understand where he’s coming from: we’re supposed to applaud Richard’s courage to make Kate feel guilty for being with Abelhammer instead of with her kids and we’re supposed to take his side as he repeatedly tries to convince her that she should be ashamed of putting her work ahead of her family. We're supposed to figure out that Richard feels bad for not working and understand that when he's screaming at Kate for having a job he's really just venting about how frustrated he is that he's unemployed. And here’s where the movie has the opportunity to open up and blossom and be symbolic of how a woman should never have to apologize for having a career. Exactly here is where the movie should have stretched out its wings and showed Kate yelling from the top of her lungs about how unfair it is that women are frowned upon for having a job and a family whereas it’s completely fine for men to have both. But instead of defending herself like that Kate responded to her husband’s grievances by bowing her head down and acknowledging that she’s wrong for working so hard for being away from her children for making bad choices and for making her husband’s life harder. But the thing is that she hasn’t made bad choices! She’s made all the right ones because her husband doesn’t work! The point is McGrath had the opportunity to really emphasize how men with families and women with families are treated differently in the workplace -- but he ended up depicting how dangerous it is to be a woman with a job because it means that one day her husband might resent her and make her apologize for it. And so instead of significantly expanding upon Pearson's efforts to level the ground for women with children in the workplace McGrath (rather confusingly) stopped just short of following her lead.
Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.