Romantic comedies are usually all about what is keeping the couple apart — the distance in "Sleepless in Seattle," the friendship in "When Harry Met Sally," the fiancé in "My Best Friend's Wedding." In the likeable "Life as We Know It," starring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel, it's all about what's keeping them uncomfortably together. That would be a bottle-hugging, diaper-wearing, adorable moppet named Sophie, the baby they inherited after their best friends were killed in an accident.
With that premise — which has been trotted out in an ad blitz of massive proportions but irritatingly takes forever to get to when the movie actually starts — you know this film is not going to be all laughs.
What you may not expect is quite how satisfying much of the film is, with Duhamel turning out to be a very good sparring partner for Heigl, whose lush, soft exterior conceals a very spiky interior that tends to wilt her co-stars in these sorts of romantic escapades.
Heigl is Holly, a planner and baker extraordinaire with hopes of turning her gourmet café into a restaurant, eventually a chain, maybe become a mogul for good measure. Duhamel is Messer, which about says it all, but just to add a little perspective, he's a behind-the-camera TV guy who dreams of directing sports broadcasts from one of those booths filled with monitors and other Messer-like dudes. We quickly find out that Messer is a briefs, not boxers kind of guy, and he spends much of his screen time in them, or in sweaty jock stuff. Both are excellent looks for him, but that's just an extra perk because he's actually more than eye candy.
Holly and Messer meet ugly, rather than cute — on a blind date set up by their happily paired best friends, Alison and Peter (played by Christina Hendricks and Hayes MacArthur). Everything goes so wrong they don't even make it out of the parking space. Over the years, Holly and Messer turn up at all those milestone events Alison and Peter celebrate — marriage, Sophie's birth, first birthday, then the funeral that also comes with a will and the guardianship wishes for their baby girl.
Director Greg Berlanti, who has enough teary TV drama under his belt to keep "Titanic" afloat, knows how to do weepies well. (And I say that as a fan of both "Brother & Sisters" and "Everwood," sob.) But what always carries him is his way with human connections and disconnections.
That talent kicks in once "Life as We Know It" gets into the meat of the story, which is about all the complications of making a complicated relationship work. That's where the film is at its best. Though there are echoes of "How do you diaper a baby?" that played out so well in the long-ago "Baby Boom" (with Diane Keaton's Tiger Lady weighing her unexpected arrival in the produce section of the grocery store), the question of whether to parent Sophie is not much of a debate here. It's all about how, which says something fundamental about the pendulum swing on the whole yuppie parenting issue.
The most salient theme running through the film is that balancing act between career and family that couples everywhere face. Since this is a family of someone else's making, the going is rougher for Holly and Messer and accounts for most of the comic tension the film mines. To make matters better and worse, there is a tightly wound child-services worker who's evaluating their parenting skills, and a gaggle of neighbors — couples with lots of kids and even more advice, led by the seriously funny Melissa McCarthy, a born scene-stealer. And a "baby whisperer" of a babysitter, a delightfully serious Britt Flatmo. With the film set in Atlanta, there are a lot of warm Southern accents floating around and cinematographer Andrew Dunn keeps the look of the film equally cozy.
Still, the central question that must be answered before the lights come up is will they or won't they fall in love. The issue is made more difficult (and in a sense easier) by the fact that both are not just free to date, but expected to. On that front, we have Holly's interest in Sam ( Josh Lucas), the handsome doctor who stops by her cafe in the mornings and turns out to be Sophie's pediatrician — what are the chances? Meanwhile, Messer has a string of nameless flings to distract him, until a really big one comes along in the form of a dream job in another city.
That you find yourself rooting for Holly and Messer to work it out for each other as much as for Sophie is a tribute to a smart script by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson — their first to be produced after about a decade in the pitching/writing trenches. The battles that rage, the frustrations that boil over, all have a very authentic feel. There are a few false notes near the beginning, particularly the regrettably flirtatious exchange at the attorney's office when Holly and Messer learn that Sophie has been entrusted to their care. But the film quickly finds its footing and tackles the serious business of making a family work.
Ultimately "Life as We Know It" is messy at times, rough around the edges too, but worth hanging in there to see how it all turns out.