I'll admit it: Though I try to watch each movie without preconceptions, I went into Life as We Know It with low expectations.
Part of it was the Katherine Heigl factor. Since Knocked Up in 2006, she's starred in a string of stinkers, becoming the poster girl for lame romantic comedy (a title she apparently wrestled effortlessly away from Jennifer Lopez). And the other part was Josh Duhamel, who gave an effortless performance in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton (an underrated little comedy from 2004), then disappeared in the TV series Vegas and thankless soldier roles in the two Transformer movies.
But writers Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson have come up with a story that works on both an emotional level and a comedic one. And director Greg Berlanti keeps things moving, never hammering the sentiment or the comedy. He lets the movie breathe - and, as a result, the cast has a breezy quality that never undercuts the sometimes serious nature of what they're playing.
Heigl and Duhamel play Holly and Messer, who are each the best friend of half of a married couple: Peter (Hayes MacArthur) and Alison (Christina Hendricks). They also are godparents to Peter and Alison's daughter, Sophie, who has her first birthday near the beginning of the film.
Oh -- and did I mention that Holly (who runs a gourmet bakery) and Messer (a technical director for Atlanta Hawks TV broadcasts) hate each other? The film starts in 2007, with the two of them suffering through an abortive and disastrous fix-up date. They subsequently become fixtures in Sophie's life, though they usually have nothing but snarky remarks for each other.
But they're thrust together when Peter and Alison are killed in a car accident. It turns out that, unbeknownst to Holly and, um, actually, his name is Eric Messer, but everyone calls him Messer - anyway, Peter and Alison wrote a will giving joint custody of Sophie to the antipathetic godparents.
So they move into their friends' house, to let Sophie have some continuity in her life. At which point, Life as We Know It turns into a two-handed version of Mr. Mom, with a pair of self-involved career types learning to a) care about someone else more than they care about themselves and b) look at each other in a new way: as partners in a shared (at first unwillingly) venture.
And yet there's enough heart and wit to keep this movie chugging along playfully. The situations are familiar -- the first poopy diaper; each of them caught short without a babysitter at a crucial work moment; each of them in embarrassing proximity when the other finally has a date. And, of course, the woman from social services always seems to show up at the absolute worst moments.
You know where this movie is headed every step of the way. Yet the writers and Berlanti find the right pace and tone, and the stars are equal to the task. Not that Life as We Know It will set the world on fire. But it's not terrible. Indeed, it's actually alright.
That sounds like faint praise, I know, but trust me -- it's much more than that. It's actually a note of hope that, just maybe, Heigl and Duhamel's careers won't be defined by their work of the past three or four years. This one is a good place to start the rebuilding process.