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Heigl, Duhamel have honest, fun ‘Life’

What would happen if your best friends unexpectedly died and named you and your sworn enemy the guardians of their surviving child?

That’s the tasteless, if effective, premise of “Life as We Know It,” a sweet-natured romantic comedy that finds control freak Holly (Katherine Heigl) thrown together with the carefree womanizer Messer (Josh Duhamel), first by grief over their mutual best friends’ death, and then by the daunting task of raising 1-year-old Sophie. Think “Three Men and a Baby” crossed with the last 15 minutes of “Beaches.”

Hollywood must really be running out of idea if it needs to stage gruesome car accidents to effectuate a “meet-cute” — but once you get past the shamelessness, “Life as We Know It” turns into a reasonably honest consideration of what it might mean to have to honor the dead by raising their living, breathing, pooping, screaming progeny.

Holly and Messer — who had a disastrous blind date three years earlier when their friends first tried to set them up — aren’t ready for the job of parenthood, but the point of “Life as We Know It” is that nobody is: You just puzzle your way through, and hope you don’t cause any bodily trauma or lasting psychological scarring to the kid.

Despite the fact that these two career-minded adults can barely tolerate one another, they decide to move into their dead friends’ house and split the child-rearing duties. This works well enough for awhile (or at least long enough for the filmmakers to stage a cutesy-cuddly montage sequence), until the inevitable problems emerge.

Messer is given a big break at his job as a television technical director, but can’t find a babysitter and has to bring Sophie along — with disastrous consequences. Holly falls for Sophie’s pediatrician Sam (Josh Lucas), but Messer isn’t entirely comfortable with another man on the scene. There’s also a social services case worker (Sarah Burns), who, for fuzzily-explained legal reasons, keeps turning up at inopportune moments.

The trailer gave almost all of this away; so if you’ve seen it, you already know that the screenplay (by Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson) relies a little too much on smelly diaper and misplaced baby jokes, and that the proceedings stop cold every 10 minutes for one of the characters to pontificate on the meaning of “family.”

What’s less expected is the sure-footed direction by Greg Berlanti (creator of TV’s “Everwood”), who mostly keeps the sitcomish slapstick to a minimum, and focuses instead on the sincere performances by Heigl and Duhamel, who are both better than they’ve ever been.

Heigl keeps playing this same fussbudget part, in movies like “27 Dresses” and “The Ugly Truth” — a high-strung woman terrified she’s on the verge of spinsterhood. In the future, she might do well to mix it up a bit, but for now this is a believable and touching portrait of a woman with so much on her plate she can barely pause to contemplate what she wants out of life.

Duhamel, who until now has come off as little more than set decoration, takes a cliched part — the ne’er-do-well playboy who learns to embrace traditional values — and lends it far more nuance than it deserves

These two actors generate a chemistry that, even if it doesn’t set the multiplex on fire, is endearingly modest: They’re fully aware that they haven’t stepped into the most original romantic comedy in cinema history, but that doesn’t stop them from giving it their all. It’s turns out be a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in their company.

Two and a half stars

Cast: Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel

Running time: 112 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for crude humor, sexual content, drug use