“Life As We Know It” is Studio Filmmaking As We Fear It.
Mechanical, unpleasant, oblivious to the way actual people live, bright and slick and hollow, this is a by-the-numbers affair that manages to make two unlikeable phony genre devices into one unlikeable whole. Josh Duhamel slouches his way though like he’s embarrassed by everything going on around him, while Katherine Heigl once again embodies a particularly off-putting kind of modern shrew. The two of them together don’t add up to the wattage of one movie star, and they aren’t able to transcend the material to make the film work simply as a pleasant sit.
The longer you read my work, the more you’re realize that the thing that is most important to me in any film, no matter how outrageous the premise or how mainstream the supposed audience, the one thing that really matters to me is honesty. I just want to see something that I recognize as real, whether it’s the way characters relate to each other or the way someone responds to a situation or some bit of behavior or observation. I don’t need every film to be a documentary. I love pure entertainment as much as the next person. But when I see something that is just fake and dishonest and mechanical, it really does sit wrong with me.
Eric Messer (Duhamel) and Holly Berenson (Heigl) are best friends to Peter (Hayes MacArthur) and Alison (Christina Hendricks), and the first third of the film is a romantic comedy about two people, thrown together by common friends, who seem to hate each other at first but who are actually drawn to one another to such an obvious degree that you know the film will be about getting them together in the last ten minutes, with nothing but obstacles in the meantime.
But then another done-a-thousand-times plot device is introduced, in which Alison and Peter are killed in a car accident, leaving their infant daughter Sophie (played over time by the Clagett triplets, Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke) to be raised by Holly and Eric together. That’s what the will says.
Never mind that Peter and Alison never discussed their plan with Messer or Holly. Never mind that these two genuinely can’t be in a room together for any form of civil discourse. Never mind the financial responsibilities the film only noddingly acknowledges. Let’s assume the set-up would even happen this way in real life. Ever. I’m willing to buy that if what follows is a real examination of the demands that are suddenly placed on these two characters.
Instead, the film just ladles on the fake, and part of the problem is that Greg Berlanti has no real feel for staging a sequence. The film’s built on punchlines and payoffs that are certainly slick, but he’s willing to sell out any chance at a genuine moment to get to those payoffs. I don’t watch “Brothers and Sisters,” and I’m only familiar with Berlanti’s TV work in general by title, but if it’s like this film at all, then there’s a reason I don’t tune in. I have to point equal blame at Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson, who co-wrote the script, because they’re the ones who actually sat in a room, wrote a romantic comedy in the year 2010, and ended the goddamn thing with a scene where someone chases someone else to the airport. That should be a federal offense at this point, and they do it without even a hint of shame at staging such a tired idea for the ten-thousandth time.
Duhamel is likable enough, but the performance is surface deep and that’s all. He doesn’t change in the film… there’s nothing about his work here that suggests that anything we see happen in the film affects him in the slightest. He’s just as male-model unruffled at the end of the film as at the start. Heigl is the one who supposedly changes, but here’s where we run up against the difference between a movie star, someone who commands our attention in everything they do and who we want to watch do almost anything, and a person who gets the lead in a movie because something else they were in made money. Heigl is not a movie star. It’s that simple. She doesn’t project anything to balance the sort of pampered reserve that is her main characteristic. She greets the whole world and all of her co-stars as if she just smelled a fart, and nothing breaks through that exterior. When she is supposed to project warmth in the film, she fails. Annoyed obligation? Sure, she can do that in her sleep. Motherly affection? Seems alien on her.
Technically, it’s a big slick studio movie. You’ve got some strong cast members in the film, and for undemanding viewers who just want pretty people onscreen for a few hours in houses they’ll never afford, it’s probably perfectly functional lifestyle porn. But if you expect a movie to earn whatever emotional power it hopes to have over you, “Life As We Know It” is infuriating and dismissible, without anything to recommend.
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