Life As We Know It knows how to take serious things seriously. Despite the presence of Katherine Heigl (as star and executive producer, with her mother Nancy), director Greg Berlanti’s second film is more drama than romantic comedy—and a decent one at that.
The film does begin with typical Heigl-ity. She plays Holly, a Type A caterer and bistro owner who’s scrambling through her closet of at least 27 dresses until she finds the tightest wrap and the highest heels. Then, all dolled up, she waits. When her blind date, Eric (Josh Duhamel), shows up, he’s an hour late, wearing a baseball cap, and expects her to hop on his hog to go to the restaurant he didn’t make reservations at. Holly insists on driving instead—she’s got a Smart Car, naturally—but when Eric takes an obvious booty call and immediately says, “Really?” when she suggests they don’t have to go through with the date their mutual friends have set up, they both get huffy and pretty much declare themselves Enemies for Life.
Cut to a few years later, when their besties Peter and Alison (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks) get married and have a baby. Through each of their milestones and celebrations up until baby Sophie’s first birthday, Holly and Eric are shown fighting. So it’s a bit of a shock—though not so surprising in Movieland—when the happy couple die in a car accident and leave custody of Sophie to the two people who can’t stand each other. Hijinks will surely ensue, right?
Mercifully, there are hardly any at all. First-time screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rush Robinson deliver a story that quickly forgets its wacky introduction, yet never brushes off the devastating turn of events that truly sets the plot in motion. Peter and Alison’s deaths are handled with understated taste—and are all the more gut-wrenching for it—and the film keeps focused on the needs of darling Sophie (played by triplets Brynn, Brooke, and Alexis Clagett). Holly and Eric, after the requisite Wha-wha-what? moment on hearing the news of their new responsibility, don’t whine or bicker over stupid shit anymore. Yes, they doubt their ability to make the arrangement work. No, they’re not happy, at all, about their lives being upended, or about (ridiculously) co-parenting with someone they don’t get along with. (Even more ridiculous is the fact that their friends never asked them to be guardians. Again, it’s Movieland.)
But when Sophie is hungry or needs to be changed, it’s all about her, even if the latter comes with gagging and remarks such as, “It’s like Slumdog Millionaire in there!” This is, after all, a comedy too, but the jokes tend to be dry and original and help the whole baby business to be cute instead of cloying. Heigl isn’t completely spared from screwball yuks, crashing Eric’s motorcycle, for instance, or getting sloppy drunk. (Just when the caseworker arrives!) But Duhamel’s more acidic Eric counters nicely. He remarks that infants are “basically dogs” and has a mini-meltdown in which he goes on about how he’s always insisted on using condoms, yet, “Boom! I still end up with the kid.” There’s also a running gag about the new dad’s looks, distracting people straight and gay wherever he goes. (No, it’s not terribly inspired, but it is at least smile-inducing.)
The romantic angle has to play out, too, but here the baby isn’t as much of roadblock as Sam (Josh Lucas), a handsome pediatrician whom Holly meets at her bistro the day of her friends’ death. Of course, rom-com rules require that they meet again afterward, and get along quite swell. Of course, Eric is a little jealous. And with both Holly and Eric devoted to their careers (Eric is involved with broadcast sports and eyeing a promotion), some crazy schemes will be hatched to smooth over bumps in their schedules.
Hey, this film may not be exactly what you’re expecting, but the filmmakers and the marketing campaign can’t completely ignore the carrots they dangle. Life As We Know It is both feel-sad and feel-good. It’s a tricky balance, yet one that’s so satisfying when the right marks are hit—or, in Heigl’s case, stumbled over.