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.
Did you know there are scientifically documented cases of very young children who had spontaneous memories of things and people and places they could never possibly have known about? Apparently The Return’s screenwriter Adam Sussman discovered this phenomenon and created the character Joanna Mills (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a young woman who since she was 11-years-old has been having disjointed flashbacks of some horrible attack she never experienced herself. She flashes regularly on a dank bar paintings of seahorses and ends up hiding from a man who calls her "Sunshine.” And who knew hearing Patsy Cline on your radio would spell supernatural trouble? The best part is when Joanna has one of these episodes she ends up cutting herself. Needless to say the girl’s a tad screwed up. Eventually Joanna finds herself inexplicably drawn to La Salle Texas where she finally starts to piece together the murder mystery that has been plaguing her for so long. Thank god! Someone just needs to hand Sarah Michelle Gellar a Coke and a smile. Forget about being a scream queen Gellar has become the queen of depression with the two Grudges and now The Return under her belt. She has actually made an art form of sad teary-eyed stares in the mirror sinking onto a bed with head in hand and general malaise. She also plays scared pretty well but deep down you know at any moment Gellar can get all Buffy the Vampire Slayer on whoever is threatening her especially as the tough Joanna. But the actress has to be getting tired of all this despair so let’s hope she decides to move on. The other Return cast members really aren’t worth mentioning except for a brief appearance by Sam Shepherd as Joanna’s dad. One can only imagine he did this for some extra cash. The Return is one of those cases in which the trailer makes the movie look a hell of a lot scarier than it really is which is probably why the studio didn’t pre-screen it for critics. It’s a marketing ploy of course pitching a thriller with an established horror actress attached--except this time they are messing with their built-in audience. Reminiscent of the truly creepy What Lies Beneath The Return may have a few jumps and bumps here and there but as a ghost story there isn’t any oomph. Maybe it has something to do with the ultra-depressive main character who isn’t nearly developed enough. We aren’t invested in what happens to Joanna or the woman periodically possessing her so she can solve her murder. The Return doesn’t measure up to its expectations lulling us instead of thrilling us.
At least Bewitched has the smarts to reinvent itself contemporizing rather than going for a straight remake. First we meet Isabel (Nicole Kidman) a naïve good-natured witch who wants to give up her supernatural powers to lead a "normal" life--much to the chagrin of her warlock father Nigel (Michael Caine). He doesn't believe she can do it. Neither do we. Then on the other side of town we meet Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) a nearly washed-up actor who's done one too many bad films. To get back on track he decides to do an updated version of the beloved 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As the mere-mortal Darrin Wyatt would be the star of the show not the actress cast as Samantha. In order for that to happen a nobody must play the witch. Lo and behold Jack runs into Isabel who can manipulate her dainty nose in just the right wriggle. He persuades her to take the part while she sees Jack as the quintessential mortal man with whom she can settle down and lead the normal life she so desires. Think it'll work out? (Cue the Bewitched theme song).
We all know Kidman can play complicated and romantic and Ferrell can do comedy. But in Bewitched they each try to do something beyond those skill sets. Unfortunately they can't quite pull it off. Kidman of course is a consummate actress. She can take on just about any character and make it her own including the slightly ditzy eternally cute Isabel. And so she taps into her inner witch once again (like she did in Practical Magic). But trying to remake comedies (like The Stepford Wives) especially something as balls-out as Bewitched doesn't really suit the Oscar winner all that well. And in Ferrell's case he hilariously handles all of Bewitched's improvisational comedic moments as expected. But watching him try to be a romantic leading man is a bit cringe-worthy. I mean if you can make smooching on Nicole Kidman look uncomfortable you certainly aren't doing the job. As far as the rest of the cast everyone is pretty much wasted in one form or another. Caine as Isabel's debonair roué of a father and Shirley MacLaine as the diva-esque actress who plays Bewitched's wonderful Endora have a couple of bright moments but don't get nearly enough to do. The same goes for Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore) as Jack's unctuous agent and Kristin Chenoweth (from the Broadway musical Wicked) as Isabel's spirited neighbor. Even Steve Carrell (TV's The Office) as the irascible Uncle Arthur can't offer the right spontaneity. What a shame.
One of Bewitched's saving graces however is writer-director Nora Ephron. She knows romantic comedies having helmed such hits as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail as well as writing the quintessential romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally…. Bewitched is right up her alley and she fluffs it up like a pro. Yet overall the film is just too darn silly for its own good. Maybe Bewitched suffers from the whole TV-turned-film phenomena in general. The idea of taking such classic TV favorites and adapting them into feature films continues to prove there isn't a shred of originality left in the studio system. But sometimes the concept works (Starsky & Hutch is one that comes to mind). Fans like me are curious as to how filmmakers will rework the material and are especially interested in who they decide to cast to play those beloved icons. We end up giving each one of these big-screen treatment iterations a chance--and are usually disappointed. Bewitched is no exception. Besides being only mildly entertaining to diehard fans Bewitched's inside jokes will most likely go over the heads of those who can't tell Samantha Darrin Endora Aunt Clara Uncle Arthur or Mrs. Kravitz from the characters on I Dream of Jeannie. Probably best just to own the sitcom's DVD collection instead.
The original Seuss story is a wonderful--albeit simple
--children's tale about two bored kids left alone in their house on a cold wet day. They're visited by a six-foot-tall talking adventure-seeking feline who's looking for a little fun (OK maybe a lot of fun). Against the warnings of the children's seriously repressed pet goldfish the Cat (with the help of a couple of troll doll look-a-likes called Thing One and Thing Two) turns the house upside down then puts it all right-side-up again before the kids' mother gets home. The question for Hollywood is how to turn a story like this one that's left an indelible impression on millions of readers young and old since 1957 into a major motion picture? While the film thankfully keeps to this original's plot talking fish and all it obviously tries to flesh things out adding some new characters and tacking on a few life lessons. The kids now have very distinct personalities: Wild older brother Conrad (Spencer Breslin) plays fast and loose with the rules while sister Sally (Dakota Fanning) an uptight control freak has driven all her friends away with her rigidity. Their mother Joan (Kelly Preston) works at the town's real estate office run by the anal retentive Mr. Humberfloob (Sean Hayes) and she's dating the guy next door Quinn (Alec Baldwin) a superficial scumbag who wants to send Conrad to military school. On the particular cold wet day in question Joan leaves instructions not to mess up the house since she's having an important business meet-and-greet there later that night. When the Cat (Mike Myers) arrives he quickly assures Sally and Conrad they can have all the fun they want and nothing bad will happen. Ignoring vocal opposition from the Fish (voiced by Hayes) the Cat quickly puts into motion a series of events that will a) prove his point b) destroy the house and c) teach the kids a sugary-sweet but valuable lesson about being responsible while living life to the fullest.
Just as Jim Carrey immortalized the Grinch Mike Myers seems born to play the Cat in the oversized red-and-white striped hat--he has the sly slightly sarcastic wholly anarchistic thing down cold. Myers' impersonations of a redneck Cat mechanic (with requisite visible butt crack) an infomercial Cat host and a zany British Cat chef are outrageous as are the hilarious little asides he spouts although they'll probably go over kids' heads: "Well sure [the Fish] can talk but is he really saying anything? No not really." But even though Myers has some fun moments he just isn't the Barney type and when he turns on the come-on-kids-let's-have-fun charm and adopts a dopey laugh he seems uncomfortable. As for the kids Fanning and Breslin (Disney's The Kid) do a fine job reacting to the wackiness the Cat surrounds them with although Fanning basically plays the same uptight character she created in the recent Uptown Girls. Of the supporting players Baldwin has the most fun as the villainous Quinn a bad-guy role that while a little superfluous gives Baldwin plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery. Hayes is also good in his dual role; he stamps Humberfloob indelibly on our brains then kicks butt as the voice of the beleaguered Fish.
It must have been a no-brainer for producer Brian Grazer to do another Dr. Seuss adaptation after all the fun magic and profits the 2000 hit How the Grinch Stole Christmas generated. With Cat in the Hat however he didn't collaborate with his usual directing partner the Grinch's Ron Howard. Instead Grazer took a chance on first-time director Bo Welch who previously served as production designer on Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands and has three Oscar nods to his credit for production design on other films. Welch certainly takes his quirky cue from Burton when it comes to the look of Cat in the Hat especially Sally and Conrad's suburban Southern California neighborhood with its lilac frames and blue roofs. The gadgets are cool too from the Cat's Super Luxurious Omnidirectional Whatchamajigger or S.L.O.W vehicle to the Dynamic Industrial Renovating Tractormajigger or D.I.R.T. mobile for cleaning up the house. When we enter the Cat's bizarre world though the film's Seussian look starts to have problems possibly because there's nothing of this place in the original book. Hidden within the feline's magical crate the Cat's world can produce "the mother of all messes " and in keeping with that purpose there's some effort at making it look like a fragmented Cubist painting. But it's more plastic than Picasso and in the end it's about as interesting as a Universal Theme Park ride (a fact the movie actually mentions).