‘Life as We Know It’ Is Shockingly Not Terrible

I can’t begin to express how very grateful I am to PopMatters for allowing me to review Life as We Know It. I am now afforded me the opportunity to work out my complicated relationship with Katherine Heigl in public, which I know you’ve all been looking forward to. I often find myself having a hard time both understanding and defending my affection for the brittle, icy queen of ridiculous romantic comedies. For everything she does right, she seems to do about ten things wrong, and for every part of her on and off screen persona that appeals, there is an equally powerful part that repels. For someone who should have it very easy, everything with her seems to be an uphill battle.

So as ridiculous at it sounds, there’s this weird sort of underdog dynamic to her that lures me in: it seems that the world is constantly allied against her and trying to bring her down, though of course, much of that seems to be brought about by her own doing – ripping on cast mates, deriding the very shows and films that made her famous.

But I’m rooting for her, even though she doesn’t necessarily deserve it, or need it. I like that she’s a bit of a throwback, cut out of an older mold of comedic leading lady – she’s tall, strikingly beautiful, smart and funny, a strong woman who takes no guff and succeeds in a man’s world. You know, except when she doesn’t, and caves in to the worst tendencies of female romcom wish fulfillment. See, because all the film evidence (aside from her starmaking turn in Knocked Up) is to the contrary of what she seems to want to be. For someone so sharp, bright, and funny, she sure makes some dull, dumb, unfunny movies.

I think I might have an answer for the Heigl’s uneven, seemingly self-sabotaging career to this point, though: she must have the same agent as Matthew McConaughey – it’s the only explanation that works. See, both are funny and ridiculously attractive, both have good command of serious acting chops and comedy. Both have shown promise as being formidable talents who can carry big, successful movies, but now seem content to coast along in an endless succession of interchangeable crappy romantic comedies (indeed, if they were to costar together, I think the romcom genre would implode in a black hole of meta and cease to exist).

So, after a string of films that seemed custom designed to test audiences’ threshold for cinematic torture (the terrible 27 Dresses, the disastrously terrible Killers, and the not-as-terrible-as-everyone-says-but-still-pretty-terrible The Ugly Truth), Heigl tries to right the ship with Life as We Know It, a drama-comedy that’s shockingly not terrible – in fact, for a good amount of its runtime, it’s actually quite good. Though formulaic and genre bound, it does have a bit more substance and emotional heft to it, and is less ridiculous than the films mentioned above, and even elicits some actual human pathos and sadness out of its tragic (however unlikely) premise…

Well, actually the premise is still kind of ridiculous when you get down to it (as you’ll see in a second), and would never actually happen in the real world (at least, not as it goes down in the film), but once belief is willfully suspended, it actually provides a sufficient emotional center to what would otherwise be a fairly standard “mismatched lovers who can’t stand each other thrown together by fate” film.

In the opening scene, Heigl finds herself set up on a disastrous blind date with roguish Josh Duhamel. Their mutual friends, a young married couple, think the two would be perfect together, but of course, they couldn’t be more different (shocking, I know). Though vowing never to see each other again, they are repeatedly thrown together by their mutual friends – they run into each other at the couple’s wedding, at their cookouts, and at the birth of their daughter Sophie. Heigl and Duhamel are named godparents, and, unbeknownst to them, legal guardians of young Sophie.

Now, I would imagine that when drawing up such legal documents that impact the life and wellbeing of your child, you would probably vet guardianship by the persons you wanted named guardian, you know, to see if such weighty responsibility is something they want to, or can, assume. But you’d be wrong, because otherwise, we wouldn’t have a movie, would we?

Anyway, the young married couple dies in a car accident, and per their will, Heigl and Duhamel find themselves in custody of Sophie, forced now to live together in the couple’s beautiful, rambling old mansion and raise their daughter — happens all the time. In good romcom fashion, this tragic incident is quickly shunted to the background, used as a mere springboard for broad comedy centered on standard baby raising gags and how very mismatched Heigl and Duhamel are.

Life as We Know It trots out all the standard tricks in the mismatched lovers romcom playbook: they scream at each other; they storm out of rooms in a huff; they have epic fights about whose turn it is to take the baby on certain nights. Heigl starts dating Sophie’s pediatrician. Duhamel brings home a different girl every night, and seems more interested in his career than raising a baby in his not-home with his not-wife. How will these crazy kids every make it? Will DSS step in and take Sophie away after doing random home visits during which Heigl always seems to be inconveniently intoxicated? Will Sophie and her pile of stuffed animals be thrown out on the street, to raise herself as Dickensian orphan? And will Heigl and Duhamel just cave in to the obvious and get it on already?

So yeah, there you go. But Life as We Know It gets to have its cake and eat it too – and even go back for thirds. It gets to tug our heart strings with the specters of loss and grief always looming just behind the exigencies of day to day life with a newborn and confused love. And, of course, the film also goes straight after our “awwwww” receptors by having a really cute baby on screen almost all the time. (Note: The baby is really really cute. Ridiculously cute – the movie is worth seeing just for the cuteness!)

Though the film does seems to reel between broad physical comedy one second (an endless parade of poop jokes, and lots of Heigl related pratfalls), and having Heigl collapse under stress and grief the next, the instability and schizophrenic tone and pacing of the film seems to bolster and reinforce the chaos of raising a new born while juggling romantic confusion. It’s a mess, but Heigl’s life (here in the film, and in real life, I guess) is a constant mess, and that she (and the film) is able to function at all seems a testament to her strength.

If Life as We Know It runs a little longer than it should, it never feels like anything is unnecessary, and despite its obvious and predictable finalé, I never felt like it should’ve ended otherwise. I guess I’m a sucker. Or maybe I was just suckered in by the baby (again, really really cute, people; one of the all time cutest movie babies). Though it may be at odds with itself – again, that Heigl dynamic of strong, independent womanhood crashing up against regressive wish fulfillment – the film does make a convincing case for unconventional family dynamics, before collapsing in the end into a conventional structure. In the end, I’m willing to give Heigl a stay of execution, as long as she agrees to find herself a better agent.

The DVD release of Life as We Know It comes with a few parenting related special features, and a fairly standard group of deleted scenes (I still don’t know how there were any, since the film runs about 30-minutes longer than any other standard romcom). No Heigl or director commentary, sadly, which I imagine would’ve been just gushing over the really really cute baby (actually, three babies, since Sophie is played by triplets).

RATING 6 / 10
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