Boy meets girl, boy hates girl: it's the eternal setup for a romantic-comedy plot. But turning the boy-hating girl and the girl-hating boy into instant parents that takes some ingenuity. To bring together the uptight gal, Holly Berenson (Katherine Heigl), and the stud-muffin guy, Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel), the writers of Life as We Know It had an inspiration: make these two unsuitable people the respective best friends of a happily married couple with an adorable infant ... then kill off the parents in a car crash and reveal that they had secretly designated Holly and Messer as the baby's joint guardians, who must now live together in the dead couple's house to raise the baby. If you had bugged the office where this brainstorm took place, you probably would have heard cheers. Plot problem solved! And never mind the odor of mangled flesh and steel that suffuses the rest of the picture.
Life as We Know It written by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson and directed by Greg Berlanti is another dreadful entry in the festering form of romantic comedy: the forced intimacy of two people who have nothing in common but hatred for each other. We saw it, just over the past year or so, in The Proposal, Did You Hear About the Morgans? and Leap Year. Though the latter two were forgettable flops, Hollywood must think there's magic in this collision of the severely flawed. Recall that the philosopher Hegel defined "genuine tragedies" as "conflicts between two rights." Heigl, who also produced her new movie, must think romantic comedy emerges from the conflict of two wrongs of half-people who become whole by growing out of their extreme views and meeting in the middle, with a fade-out kiss. Holly and Messer aren't exactly parent material; he's only chronologically a grownup. But by living together they'll mature into fond lovers and good parents.
Actually, that's not the worst premise for a rom-com. And somewhere in the universe of theoretical movies, there could be an appealing mating of Heigl and Duhamel: he the tall, unthreatening hunk from TV (Las Vegas) and movies (the Transformers franchise), she the Grey's Anatomy star who was the bedrock of sexual common sense in Knocked Up and, when she was just 15, Gérard Depardieu's precocious, naively enticing daughter in the 1994 My Father the Hero. We keep seeing Heigl's potential as a fine comic actress and, the curse of optimism, continue to be disappointed when she betrays her best instincts.
For there's an odd similarity to Life as We Know It and 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, the movies Heigl has chosen to solidify her star status after Knocked Up: her character usually comes across as a prude, a pill and a dominatrix (but not in the fun way). Holly's last boyfriend, of three years, walked out on her perhaps because, as she describes herself, "I'm a little bit of a control freak." She always plays a creative career woman here the owner-chef of a boutique bakery called Fraiche (a word no one in the film can pronounce correctly) whose life is empty because she's not married. In Life as We Know It, Holly's friends, her assistant at the bakery and total strangers reprove her for being single. (Messer, the technical director of Atlanta Hawks games on TV, gets different advice. One harried husband, searching for an analogy for marriage, says, "Imagine a prison and then don't change anything.")
In this movie, the comedy, to use the generic term, rises from indignities inflicted on Holly: being stoned on marijuana when she meets the baby's social worker, sporting a dab of baby poop on her face as she greets the neighbors. In the big breakup scene, at a block party, Heigl and Duhamel are both obliged to do their emoting with their faces painted like clown felines. And when she finally finds Dr. Right (Josh Lucas, as a kindly pediatrician), fate keeps crossing their stars: first when her call to him is interrupted by the news that her friends have died; then, on a fabulous first date, when Messer calls to say the baby's suffering from a urinary-tract infection; then, after Holly and her pediatrician have settled in, when Messer returns from Phoenix to set in motion his final reconciliation with her.
What could have saved this movie? Deitchman and Rusk Robinson, having come up with a gruesome way to make a twosome, might have nervily pursued their dark muse into black comedy. As it is, there's just one creepy moment: Holly and Messer have their first real sex in the bedroom of the deceased couple. At this point viewers may be roused from their torpor to whisper a queasily admiring "Ewwww." For the rest of Life as We Know It, you're likely to think you're at home, watching some substandard TV show, and find yourself pressing the fast-forward button on an invisible remote. But attendance in a movie theater requires more decisive activity: get up and walk out.