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story.lead_photo.caption Kate Reddy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is an overworked mother with a high-powered job in Douglas McGrath’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.

— I Don’t Know How She Does It is a puzzlingly inert movie, as bland and bloodless a film as I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not even terribly annoying - though someone should lend Sarah Jessica Parker a brush, and she does need to do something about those dark roots. It’s just a fatuous movie without any particular reason to exist.

That said, it does pretend - or maybe aspire - to say something about the plight of working mothers.

But the feminist critique offered here is of a particularly dated, whiny and obvious sort.

Yes, having children complicates your life. Yes, people sometimes judge you on appearances. But someone should have let Douglas McGrath know about a movie called Nine to Five that came out 31 years ago. It was funny in spots, and though its plot was preposterous, it said more about the real workplace challenges women face than the vague tribulations that bug Parker’s character Kate Reddy in this movie. Plus it had better music and it marked the acting debut of Dolly Parton.

Instead of Parton, we get Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks as a single mom testifying to her friend Kate’s extraordinary ability to have it all - architect husband (Greg Kinnear, slowly receding into the wallpaper), hotshot job in the financial sector and two beautiful children (though the youngest one may be a little slow on the uptake). Hendricks is neither quite the special effect nor the thespian Parton was in Nine to Five (whatever you think about that film, or Parton’s subsequent acting career, she was terrific in that role). She’s given dumb things to say, and she delivers them while looking stunned and ditzy, although she’s supposed to be some kind of corporate lawyer type.

But the movie’s not about her, it’s about Reddy (the surname is often invoked, and no doubt intended to evoke the Australian songstress who sang “I am woman/Hear me roar”).And Kate is irritated by the stay-at-home mothers (actually they spend more hours in the gym than at home) who shame her at her daughter’s school’s bake sale. (To the point that this supposedly not-at-all-silly creature takes to “distressing” a store-bought pie.)

And Kate is also annoyed by the office brown nose (Seth Meyers) who seems to always get the good assignments. But then Kate and her no-nonsense junior assistant (Olivia Munn) come up with an idea so good it can’t help but catch the eye of a superior in New York (Pierce Brosnan, carefully photographed). Suddenly Kate is required to shuttle back and forth from her Boston home to New York, where Mr. Big operates, to refine and pitch her plan.

And, about the same time, her previously underemployed spouse lands a big commission. (That’s good, right? No, that’s bad because it complicates the child-care logistics.) So how is Kate going to keep it all together, especially since Mr. Big is so attractive and so conveniently lonely?

Well, I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s really not as interesting as I just made it sound. When your best gag involves head lice removal - specifically, a whimsical salon devoted to their eradication (do they really have those in Boston?) - you’re going to have trouble filling out 90 minutes. (Oh, and the worst gag also involves head lice. Or maybe it’s the erroneously sent instant messages.)

Nothing really works in this film, though you can decode some of the decisions: Parker’s voiceover carries you back to Sex and the City (which worked much better as a half-hour on cable than a big screen extravaganza). None of the supporting characters really gains purchase (Jane Curtin comes closest as Kate’s disapproving mother-in-law) but feel like familiar types unmoored from some unambitious network sitcom.

It ought to be easy to snark at this film, but the truth is it just left me feeling depressed. It’s not how they do it that mystifies me, but why.

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 09/16/2011

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