The Ugly Truth (2009)
Can’t a woman ever catch a break in romantic comedies? The genre occasionally just comes across as contemptible against women. On screen, female figures will fight against misogyny, but then how often do they usually just give in? How often do the female characters change to suit the male characters? Usually, the male romantic lead has some kind of boneheaded secret, but it’s really the women that do all the changing and the man is left off the hook. It’s somewhat appalling and amazing that the unappealing romantic comedy The Ugly Truth was written by three women and produced by Katherine Heigl. I guess they wanted to prove that women could be just as capable of self-sabotage.
Abby (Heigl) is a career-driven TV news producer who’s a bit unlucky when it comes to love. She has a steep checklist of qualifications for a prospective mate. She is aghast when her boss hires Mike (Gerard Butler), a rude public access host of the dating advice show “The Ugly Truth,” to shore up ratings. Mike is an uncivilized shock-jock who dispels pearls of wisdom like, “No man wants to date a fattie.” Abby and Mike bicker from an ideological divide. But when an attractive doctor (Eric Winter) movies in next door to Abby, she agrees to follow Mike’s dating advice. He coaches her on how to win over the doctor, and it generally seems to be working. Of course now Mike thinks he may have fallen in love with Abby as well. Oh what complications await.
The humor of The Ugly Truth doesn’t even aspire to be sophomoric; it’s questionable whether the comedy even reaches juvenile levels. It’s tasteless and piggish, but the weird part is that it comes across as knowledgeable on the subject of sex as a ten-year-old kid who just discovered his dad’s secret stash of Playboys. It talks about the right stuff but does so in a clueless manner. It’s like an exaggerated randy cartoon that chiefly plays to a male fantasy. The movie feels that the height of comedy is when Abby wears a pair of vibrating panties to a business dinner, and oh no, some little kid is playing with the remote. So Abby is writhing and convulsing while trying to deliver a business speech. It’s the female orgasm turned into a cartoon. I won’t even get into the icky implications that Abby does not even get to control her orgasm, that she is held hostage by the whim of a child (a boy, no less). It just comes across as morally queasy if you think more about it, which may be why Heigl is practically rolling around on the table and chirping like a dolphin. Meg Ryan has nothing to worry about in the world of public displays of an O-face. At least in that movie, the joke was on the audience, and the man, and the woman was in a position of control. I even saw this routine already with a vibrating egg in the 2006 hard-core sex drama, Shortbus.
It doesn’t get much better. There’s a moment at the ballpark where Abby spills her drink onto her date’s lap, so she furiously tries to rub it out, which in crazy movie world means the man instantly attains pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the movie then takes another step and displays this ordeal on the ballpark’s Jumbotron. And if even that isn’t enough, the movie takes yet another step to obscure what Abby is really doing, so all you see is her bobbing head by the crotch of her date. It’s not really funny because it’s so forceful to the point of being unpleasant. Abby is the butt of most jokes and after awhile it just seems cruel. The jokes recycle the same lousy observations about the differences between men and women. Men want sex. Women want relationships. Men are cretins. Women are crazy. Men like boobies. Blah, blah, blah. This time there’s just more bad language. There’s nothing truly adult here, either in wisdom or comedy. Just because you imply oral sex and throw out a few F-bombs doesn’t mean that your romantic comedy is any more sophisticated and relevant. The Ugly Truth just reeks of desperation.
The central characters don’t even come across as believable for a romantic comedy. Abby is an intelligent professional woman who will stand up to rampant misogyny in the workplace. She resents Mike’s attitude that the only value women serve is to please men. So then it would only be natural that she follows Mike’s coaching to win the heart of the hunky doctor living next door. She clearly believes that she must become a sexed-up twit to win over a doctor. What? Excuse me, come again? The characters are at the mercy of whatever contrivances the plot requires. Predictably, this is yet another movie where two characters hate each other for two acts only to finally realize in the last act that, surprise, they’re really in love. Because we know the inevitable coupling, an audience likes to pick up on moments that might help explain how we got to our final romantic destination. Will the crude dude really have a mushy heart deep down? Will our icy businesswoman be able to let her hair down and enjoy the messiness of life? Have you ever seen a romantic comedy before and therefore know the answers to these questions? In The Ugly Truth, I could not explain why either of these people would fall in love with the other. I’m sure there are plenty of great backstories where people realized their true love in the basket of a hot air balloon. Seriously, the climax takes place in a hot air balloon and Abby asks, “Why do you love me?” to Mike. “Beats the shit out of me,” he replies. This is intended as a moment of romantic clarity. I view it as the screenwriters giving up, having failed to establish even a remotely credible relationship in a genre replete with easy choices.
I’m actually a fan of Heigl (27 Dresses) and think that she seems like a natural fit within the romantic comedy universe. She’s expressively comedic, has good timing, and she knows how to hit her jokes hard. She can wait until she’s older to do a family drama because right now there’s gold in them thar genre pictures (practice the finer points of singing into a hairbrush and dancing around a coffee table). But The Ugly Truth is a waste of her ability. Abby is a tightly wound control freak and Heigl plays her without an ounce of warmth. Butler (300) can still come across as likeable even if his character is cheerily boorish. He doesn’t hide his natural Scottish brogue too well, though. He’s got more comic firepower and he openly mocks himself, which makes him more appealing as a character. However, there isn’t much in the way of chemistry between Heigl and Butler, only combativeness. Their fighting is the only emotion that seems real.
So what is the ugly truth of The Ugly Truth? I suppose if you’re a woman, you better not be successful, talented, smart, or slightly overweight. And your dating failures are completely your own fault. And you better be willing to put out or at least dress a little provocatively. And don’t expect your man to change any of his ways, simply lower your standards. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the concluding wisdom from our trio of female screenwriters. Heigl and Butler squander their talents in such a charmless battle of the sexes cartoon. There’s little in the way of wit or insight or even properly executed comedic payoffs. The Ugly Truth needs to be atoned for. It’s rarely funny and it’s insulting and unflattering to both sexes. It exists squarely in the world of exaggerated male fantasy, peculiar for a genre defined by female wish fulfillment. At my screening, there was a family who brought their adolescent kids with them. I could hear pre-teen giggling at the more slapstick-heavy jokes and heard lots of questions whenever something sexual was discussed. At one point, Heigl covers the eyes of a child and says, “This is not for kids,” and I guess that family finally got the message because they left shortly after. Except this movie isn’t intended for anybody. Everyone in the theater should have followed suit.
Nate’s Grade: D+