October 07, 2010

Life as We Know It

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Life as We Know It

ROMANCE/COMEDY:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-10-08

Running Length:

1:55

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas, Hayes MacArthur, Christina Hendricks

Director:

Greg Berlanti

Screenplay:

Ian Deitchman & Kristin Rusk Robinson

Cinematography:

Andrew Dunn

Music:

Blake Neely

U.S. Distributor:

Warner Brothers

Subtitles:

none


The best thing that can be said about Life as We Know It is that it gets some of the details right when it comes to the experience of sharing a home with an infant. Still, all the poop, vomit, sleepless nights, and cute, joyous little moments can't make up for the fact that the framework is constructed out of artifice. Cloying and at times annoying, Life as We Know It is egregiously manipulative, whoring itself out for a few unearned tears. In fact, although it poses as a story about the love of (adoptive) parents for a child, it's really little more than a standard-order romantic comedy. The proof is in the ending with the final ten-or-so minutes being copied chapter and verse from the Romantic Comedy Playbook. Isn't anyone else tired of having so many movies of this ilk climaxing in airports?

For Holly Berenson (Katherine Heigl) and Eric Messer (Josh Duhamel), it's hate - or at least disdain - at first sight. Oil and water, they never get beyond her curb on their first blind date, which is set up by their mutual best friends, Peter and Alison Novack (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks). However, even though the romantic angle doesn't work out, their orbits nevertheless intersect frequently, most often because of Peter, Alison, and their one-year old daughter, Sophie. Then tragedy strikes. Peter and Alison are killed in a car accident. Their will gives joint custody to Holly and Eric, forcing the two to move into Peter and Alison's house and work out complementary schedules that allow them to care for the little girl and maintain their careers - running a catering business for Holly and directing basketball game telecasts for Messer. Of course, there are conflicts, but their mutual desire to provide Sophie with a stable home keeps them together. Hate turns to love and Life as We Know It falls into the "been there, done that" déjà vu groove.

I think there might be a good movie in here somewhere, but director Greg Berlanti (whose filmography consists primarily of TV episode screenplays) never uncovers it. Life as We Know It touches on the impossible situation of being thrown into the guardianship of a child before one is ready for it, and of the struggle to merge career, personal life, and the baby's well-being. The production takes no risks, however. The animosity between Holly and Messer is cartoonish and the situation is reduced to a number of sit-com-influenced skits. The ever-helpful neighbors are represented by usual suspects. We've seen them all before in other movies (albeit played by different actors). Everything about Life as We Know It feels recycled. Because it is.

Berlanti tries far too hard to get us to feel. His over-the-top manipulation is so obvious that it's a turnoff. He obviously has no faith that the situation on its own is worthy of tears, or smiles, or both, so he stacks the deck with frequent close-ups of a crying baby or a giggling baby (as the situation demands). Early in the movie, there are also frequent reminders of the late, great parents. And there's the obligatory scene in which Holly becomes the recipient of the baby's first "Mama." As Life as We Know it enters its second half, Sophie becomes a prop in the escalating romantic tension between Holly and Messer. Too bad the "tension" gets left on the pages of the script; it certainly doesn't turn up on screen.

I have yet to decide whether Katherine Heigl is a bad actress or merely a lazy one but, with the possible exception of Knocked Up, she plays every role in the same manner. Her characters are all interchangeable. And boring. Maybe if I cared a little more about Holly or viewed her as more than a blonde, attractive caricature, the director's crass manipulation might have seemed more heartfelt. Josh Duhamel is fine - his is a restrained, laid-back performance. The only drawback is that there's never any connection between his Messer and Heigl's Holly. Josh Lucas, who normally plays the romantic lead, is trapped in the role of the "other guy," which means he's destined to end up without the girl at the end. The movie mistakenly makes him a better match for Holly than Messer. Savvy movie-goers, however, will never doubt who's going to be with whom when the end credits roll.

Life as We Know It clocks in at an unwarranted 115 minutes, which is about 30 minutes too long for something this formulaic. The extra half-hour allows additional screen time to be granted to the annoying neighbors, provides an opening for the pointless relationship between Holly and Sam to be developed, and gives the NBA multiple product placement opportunities. Admittedly, most parents (new or old) are going to encounter some familiar moments during the course of Life as We Know It, but they're the kind of obvious, non-insightful interludes that will generate little more than a knowing nod from the viewer. That's a poor reason to see a movie that is otherwise so deeply flawed.

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