I was predisposed to dislike Life As We Know It. Firstly, Christina Hendricks’ character is killed off in the first twenty minutes, a near-unforgiveable sin in my book. Secondly, Life As We Know It stars Katherine Heigl. Heigl has made a name for herself, in movies at least, by playing the same character over and over again: the uptight, quasi-feminist career woman with no social skills, who can’t loosen up and learn to love until she inexplicably falls for the man she initially and understandably hated. This guy is usually and asshole or a slacker (or both!). Heigl’s characters are a Backlash view of women’s progress, personified. In Heigl-Backlash world, feminism has made the modern woman a miserable ball breaker, who at thirty-something is married only to her career, and who longs for a real man to swagger in and put her in her proper place (cue Gerard Butler). It might well be the case that these are the only roles available to actresses, even to established and popular ones like Heigl, but that doesn’t make me hate them any less. In fact, it makes me hate them more.
So believe me, fair readers, when I say that Life As We Know It was going to have a tough time winning me over. It didn’t. But it is by far the least offensive Katherine Heigl rom com yet.
Heigl plays Holly, a caterer who owns a gourmet café. Josh Duhamel, with help from his seemingly ever-visible pecs and biceps, plays Eric Messer, a broadcast producer for the Atlanta Hawks. Holly’s best friend Alison and Messer’s best friend Peter are a couple, and they set Holly and Messer up on a disastrous date. From that day forth, Messer and Holly hate each other, but because of their mutual friends, they see each other all the time. Messer sleeps around, goes running a lot (hence the best actor nomination for his biceps) and generally enjoys the single life. Holly has a crush on the cute pediatrician who buys his lunch at her café, and is correct in her assessment that other women judge her for not being married. Alison and Peter die in a car crash and, unbeknownst to Holly and Messer, have designated their two friends as guardians for their one-year-old daughter Sophie. And so Holly and Messer are left with the task of raising Sophie together while mourning their friends. Lots of poop, pee and vomit jokes ensue. Eventually, Holly and Messer get together, then fall apart and then there a scene at the airport because apparently there is an eleventh Commandment that my religious education teacher forgot to mention: “Thou shalt not make a rom com without including a running-through-the-airport-to-declare-love-before-it’s-too-late scene.”
Life As We Know It does not pass the Bechdel Test, but it does break the rom com mold in a few notable ways. Firstly, it depicts work-family conflict as a problem that affects men as well as women. On one occasion, Messer is forced to take Sophie in to work, with disastrous results. We see Holly juggle work and childcare too, but her juggle doesn’t nearly cost her a promotion the way Messer’s does. We also see Holly refusing the role of primary caregiver; the first time Sophie needs her diaper changed, Holly tells Messer, “I’m not changing diapers for two year just because I’m the girl. Get in there.” There’s a critique of single-shaming, too, which is rare in Heigl movies, and in rom coms in general. For example, we are left to guess Holly’s age – there’s no harping on about her being “thirty-FOUR and still not married!” And despite Messer’s prediction that Sophie’s presence in her life will cause the men she wants to date to view her as “complicated,” the pediatrician is perfectly happy to date her, and to have Sophie in his life, too.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of the same old predictable rom com stuff going on. There are repeated references to marriage and parenthood taking all the fun – that is, all the sex – out of life. There are henpecked husbands. There is a social worker who, upon finding out that Holly and Messer have complicated their already confusing situation by sleeping together, gives them two choices: get engaged, or pretend that the sex never happened. And in a very clever move, the screenwriters managed to merge two rom com clichés – the sassy Black girlfriend and the hilarious gay colleague – into one character, the effete Black baker dude! Way to kill two birds with one totally stereotyped stone!
Finally, while this is the least egregious Katherine Heigl rom com to date, it is nonetheless a Katherine Heigl rom com. She’s still playing the controlling, over-thirty single lady who falls in love with the guy she originally, and justifiably, disliked. She’s tamed, chastened, in a relationship at long last, by the movie’s end. The message of the movie – that families come in all shapes and sizes, and come together in all kinds of ways – sweetens the Uptight Bitch stereotype. But despite some pushing back against gender stereotypes, despite the small signs of progress, Life As We Know It is exactly what we’ve come to expect from rom coms. In other words, we’re not out of the Heigl-Backlash woods yet.