In this postwomen's liberation era it did happen, although a lot of people seem to have forgotten this it is hard to believe that an amply educated, allegedly intellectually eager woman like mother Eliza Welsh, the character played by Uma Thurman in Motherhood, would be at all surprised to find herself dissatisfied with frazzled days spent tethered to a stroller. But she genuinely seems to consider herself a pioneer, a truth teller of the not-entirely-pleased stay-at-home-mom set.
"Nobody ever talks about this stuff," Eliza grouses to her best friend, Sheila (Minnie Driver), as they are leaving their children's school, having dropped off something essential but forgotten in the morning rush to get out the door.
Eliza, are you nuts? They do. Ad nauseam. And they write about it too. You should know that you're a stay-at-home mom and self-described feminist who writes about small triumphs and big miseries on an oft-neglected blog called the Bjorn Identity. Do you never look at any other parenting websites written from a female perspective? You're also a loyal New Yorker, who guards your West Village neighborhood against tourists who have the temerity to stop to admire it ("It's a neighborhood, people, not a theme park," you snap), so surely you've seen the Sunday New York Times? It contains a magazine that frequently and capably chronicles the various dilemmas facing contemporary women, particularly the one involving balancing motherhood with a career.
Ten years ago, Eliza, who smokes and swears and says it like she feels it, might have seemed like a breath of fresh, frank air, a maternal version of Carrie Bradshaw. But in 2009, as she pants out her lines and flaps about frenetically like Courteney Cox in Cougar Town, Thurman approaches portraying a 40-something as if she's auditioning for the part of a winded windmill she just seems clueless. Or like a woman who didn't consider her choices carefully enough, locked herself in a prison of her own device and is now snarling like a caged tiger. The movie is set in the course of one day, and with the exception of her children, few who cross her path escape her wrath, from guys who take her parking spot to the people in line at the party store to the aforementioned tourists.
Writer-director Katherine Dieckmann has supplied a simple narrative thread familiar to all mothers: multitasking. This means that if you're already a mother, watching Motherhood is a little like spending a bad day with your most self-involved self. On this day, Eliza must shop for and give a birthday party for her daughter Clara, who is turning 6, care for her toddler (who, Eliza should be grateful, is always nodding off into a convenient nap) and also find the time to pen an essay about "What Motherhood Means to Me" for a contest she would like to win. The piece only has to be 500 words long, although I have a hunch Eliza could sum it up in nine: "Schlepping, schmatas and not nearly enough sex or showering." The prize is a regular column in the fictional Lunchbox magazine, paying $3,000 a month.
With that validation, Eliza might feel like herself again. And what would that mean? For starters, someone whose voice the world needed. In a scene in which Eliza flirts with an attractive young delivery man, we see him improbably happen upon a literary journal containing a picture of the young Thurman, looking defiant and hip, alongside some of Eliza's early prose. He starts reading aloud and she stops him, thankfully. "That was my thing," she says without a trace of irony. "That kind of ferociously lyrical fiction."
She's from an entitled mind-set. Not monetarily her husband Avery (Anthony Edwards) is a magazine editor, and they live in two adjacent rent-stabilized apartments and drive a Volvo old enough to still look like a Volvo but rather, intellectually. She's a woman who treats a career as sort of an accessory, something that ought to be easy to pick up once you're in the mood. She's less a Mother Who Thinks than a mother who thinks she ought to be thinking.
There's no self-doubt when it comes to the contest; she assumes that if she applies herself even a little, she'll win. She taps away at the keyboard for a few minutes, then heads off to a sample sale with Sheila. (Driver, blooming with her own pregnancy at the time of filming, is the best thing in Motherhood; she's wry and funny and real.) I was too busy eying the racks to see if the legendary New York sample sales are really all that to notice that this marked a serious lapse in Eliza's work ethic. But Avery calls her on it, right after she has whined about his negative response to her first draft, asking, if the essay were so important, "why did you go shopping with your friends?"
The honest answer is, because otherwise she might have missed the opportunity to buy a $380 dress for $40. Watching Thurman deliver this line, I thought of the opportunity Dieckmann missed. Her eye for the details of motherhood, from the list-making to the depressing nature of adults socializing in a sandbox while their precious offspring play, is so acute. If she would just edit out the few soft touches designed to make us like Eliza like her kind attentions to an elderly neighbor Motherhood would play like a flat-out parody of the entitled, self-involved mother, fretting more than she copes and blogging more than she mothers. Isn't that a character ripe for mocking?