When a romantic comedy’s biggest liability is its central romance, it’s time to rethink the genre. Life as We Know It spends its first hour in a shallow exploration of some pretty interesting ideas about the way priorities shift when a child enters the picture. Then, it abandons those ideas for routine rom-com pablum (pardon the pun) that’s almost saved by the two lead actors. Almost.

After an opening “blind date from hell” sequence establishes Holly (Katherine Heigl) as an uptight neurotic and the unsubtly named Messer (Josh Duhamel) as a brash manchild, we understand pretty firmly that these two characters do not get along. They try to make it work because their respective best friends (Hayes MacArthur, Christina Hendricks) are married, but they simply can’t stand one another. What wacky rom-com circumstances will bring this couple together? Death. Huh.

That’s where Life as We Know It starts to get interesting. The married couple die in a car accident, and their will states that guardianship of their 15-month-old, Sophie (played by triplets Alexis, Brynn, and Brooke Clagett), goes to Holly and Messer. We never get to know the deceased well enough to understand why they would make such a terrible decision, but the movie isn’t really interested in that. It focuses primarily on two conflicts: the struggle to maintain their blossoming careers despite having a baby to take care of, and Holly and Messer’s struggle against each other.

Messer is the technical director for Atlanta Hawks games. As he describes his job, the director announces the camera number, and Messer pushes the button for that camera. It’s unglamorous, but he works hard, has good instincts, and wants to sit in the director’s chair someday. He doesn’t want to give it up for a baby that’s not even his. On the other hand, Holly wants this life and is more than willing to sacrifice her bakery’s restaurant expansion because she can’t afford the time or money it would take to achieve it. Still, Holly seems disappointed about the whole thing — she has the life she thinks she wants, but not in the way she wanted to get it, and not at the expense of her thriving business.

When Life as We Know It loses interest in the characters’ lives and occupations, it loses momentum and becomes far too one-sided. Initially portrayed as ambitious and self-absorbed, the screenplay eventually decides to have Holly start sacrificing as much as possible to make Messer look like a villain. Unfortunately, it only serves to make Holly seem extremely self-righteous. She never really exhibits any of the warmth or compassion necessary to sell this idea that she wants to raise Sophie. Like Messer, she merely ends up not doing a lot of things she would have otherwise done (like the business expansion) and doesn’t seem particularly happy about it. She’s doing it out of obligation, not love — just like Messer. The film could have made this more balanced, bringing them together romantically out of this shared sense of frustrated obligation. It may not be the stuff of treacly rom-coms, but at least it’s sort of interesting.

The movie treads a lot of the same ground covered in 2007’s Knocked Up, and having Heigl in one of the central roles makes the comparison unavoidable. Knocked Up explored its characters in fairly nuanced, unexpected ways that made it rise above what could have been a sappy romantic comedy. Life as We Know It starts out on the same path but loses interest in the characters as people. It forces a relationship that never feels natural, turning them into plot devices that do a disservice to all the good material in the first hour. Also, it contains an unending number of vomit and poop jokes. Sorry, filmmakers — that’s just never going to be funny.

All in all, Life as We Know It has a decent first half that’s undermined to the point of self-destruction by its second half. It’s too bad nobody involved was brave enough to risk a more interesting exploration of the characters — this really could have been something special.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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