It's funny how often the worst films yield the most interesting reviews. Critics find The Ugly Truth misogynistic, unfunny, and formulaic, but the film has inspired some excellent commentary on the awful state of women in romantic comedies.
The film, which comes out today, focuses on Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl), a Sacramento morning show producer who is extremely competent at her job, but so businesslike in her personal life that she brings along a checklist of desirable traits on a blind date. Her show's ratings are down thanks to the vapid married hosts (Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins) so Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a shock jock-like TV broadcaster, is brought onto the show. Though Abby finds Mike and his "Ugly Truth" segments disgusting, she inexplicably agrees to let him advise her on her love life and produce her dates so she can win over the doctor she's seeing (Eric Winter). So basically, as in most other recent romantic comedies, the icy, under-sexed professional women must compromise her ideals and let the immature, boorish male character teach her how to let loose... and love again.
Every single review calls The Ugly Truth misogynistic, which is perhaps surprising because was written by three women. Two of the screenwriters, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, and director Robert Luketic were behind Legally Blonde and have worked on other superior comedies including 10 Things I Hate About You and The House Bunny. Similarly confusing: why Katherine Heigl, who complained that her film Knocked Up was sexist, co-produced a film (with her mom) that is (disputably) more anti-female than Judd Apatow's oeuvre. Heigl and the screenwriters have all said in interviews that they were excited that the film's R rating allowed them to be as raunchy as they wanted, but we've already considered the possibility that the new "naughty girl movement" in comedy is actually pretty sexist (and been turned off by Katherine Heigl's lengthy orgasm scene). Below, critics weigh whether The Ugly Truth is just another lousy, forgettable film or the symptom of a larger sexist trend in today's romcoms.
The Ugly Truth continues a pretty ugly run of romantic comedies squandering the on-screen talent while perpetuating the image of career women as harpies with nice clothes and no dates. The sex of the screenwriters doesn't seem to matter (all three credited here are women). Everyone belonging to the Writers Guild of America, apparently, has signed a secret pact to recycle the same shrill, Type-A, vaguely inhuman female lead who must learn to bend a little and appreciate the hunk in her midst, the one smitten with all her nutty foibles. If only the foibles were funny foibles. If only the characters seemed like earthlings.
Like most women in movies right now, Katherine Heigl was born in the wrong decade. She has the misfortune to work in a time when her business values women either as something else for the camera to do (apparently Megan Fox is all the transformer certain men need) or as a device to confuse gaydars. Sixty years ago, she might have been a biggish deal in minor comedies, the way she is now. But she might also have had taller, more charismatic men to star with and better things to be and represent than she does at the start of the 21st century, where she's stuck playing professionally capable, socially retarded women.
Many women in romantic comedies in the last few years have been modeled on either Liz Lemon from NBC's 30 Rock, Sally Albright from When Harry Met Sally, or Jane Craig in Broadcast News,' three of the most important female TV or movie comedy characters in the last two-and-a-half decades. Abby has a combination of their professional seriousness and their high-strung temperament. But those women are funny, true, and humanly neurotic. The screenwriters picked over their obvious traits (Liz's unlimited capacity for humiliation, Sally's finicky ways, Jane's prickly righteousness) without attaching anything emotional to them. It's hard to see any of those women climbing a tree to fetch a cat only to fall out of it and into a man's crotch. Abby does that.
Despite its appealing stars, The Ugly Truth is a charmless romantic comedy. The film is so predictable that it might as well have been written as a test classroom exercise in RomCom 101. The notion that opposites attract is a staple of the genre. But that doesn't mean the well-worn concept couldn't have been approached from a fresh angle.
The screenwriters - Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith - had one sharp idea: to explore the polar-opposite rules of guy comedies and gal comedies. Guy comedy revels in the blithe display of unruly behavior; a Rogen or Jason Segel character doesn't do or say crude things for shock's sake but as an expression of his unhousebroken personality. It's not what he does; it's what he is. Gal comedy plays on these same embarrassing words or situations to test the heroine's decorum and destroy her dignity. In both kinds of movies, the activities and attitudes that men are proud or unaware of are exactly the ones that women try desperately to suppress. The dichotomy is both reductive and profound: the male brute's let-it-all-hang-out vs. the civilized female's try-to-pretend-it-didn't-happen.
Mike, meanwhile, for all his rough edges, is not a predator or a bully but, for his and the movie's perspective, a truth teller. More important, he's comfortable in his own skin, like the Rogen and Segel guys. The Ugly Truth thus establishes its agenda as a rehab process for Abby, not a comeuppance for Mike. What a romantic comedy should be doing is showing what's attractive and limiting in two people, then bringing these plausible opposites together at the middle. Something is very wrong when the beast is instantly more appealing than the beauty and when a comedy becomes an essay in misogyny.
Butler, the gruffly bearded Scottish-born hunk, hasn't done much since leading the Spartans in the semi-digitized war epic 300; this is the first chance anyone who didn't catch RocknRolla or P.S. I Love You has had to see what he's like in an ''ordinary'' role. To judge from The Ugly Truth, I'd say he's a potato-faced Russell Crowe with a lot less charm. Butler has a jovial twinkle, but because he's working so hard to nail an American accent, he doesn't so much enunciate his words as masticate them. He tears into every scene as if he were devouring a 20-ounce steak. Heigl, who has mastered the art of acting insecure in order to make her porcelain-doll sexiness seem more offhand, has energy problems of her own. She's not just nervous, she's skittish; she can't relax for long enough to let the audience fall for her. She and Butler certainly generate sexual chemistry: They're both so tightly wired, and attractive in such outsize opposite ways (When Gladiator Met Barbie? Okay, I'll stop), that when they kiss on an elevator, they look as if they can hardly wait to go to bed. But does that mean they're right for each other? Or just ripe for an empty hot fling?
Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-In-Law) seems to have gone out of his way to shoot his leads from the most unflattering angles, and he is careful never to let anything resembling charm or wit creep into the painfully formulaic story. The film's comic high point is a restaurant scene in which Abby's vibrating panties (one of Mike's ideas) go haywire while she's having dinner with her bosses. The film's comic low point is every other scene. Heigl, who also served as co-executive producer (with her mother!), had the temerity to decry Knocked Up as sexist shortly after its release. Is this her idea of a corrective? The Ugly Truth is insulting to women, men and even goldfish. There isn't a single moment that bears a remote resemblance to real life. This is an artificial, antiseptic movie about artificial, antiseptic people.
Pretty soon Mike is delivering the red-blooded hetero version of the role normally played in these films by a flotilla of waggish gays, jazzing up Abby's prim wardrobe with lacy black bras and micromanaging her conveniently arid romance with a clean-cut, anemic physician (Eric Winter) who's just not into her - or, wink wink, any other woman. Picture several slung-together episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, minus the sharp writing and the good cheer, and you've got the ungainly gist of The Ugly Truth. It's a measure of Heigl's gift for screwball that she manages to bring some redeeming rage into the routine humiliation - passing for physical comedy - to which director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) subjects her.
The director, Robert Luketic, who did far better with Legally Blonde appears to have instructed his actors to (over)play their roles for the hard of seeing and hard of hearing, resulting in across-the-board loud line readings, mugging faces and flopping (clothed) body parts. Mr. Butler, an appealing screen presence who needs better roles or savvier career counseling, does his grinning best with a charmless, unbelievable character who of course is hiding a wounded heart under his leathery man hide. (The first tip-off: Mike provides babe advice to his young nephew, an ape in training.) The fantasy of the redeemable, even lovable cad is a favorite romantic fantasy, one that the writers Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith peddle shamelessly. That three women thought up this junk should be no more surprising than the fact that the movie is being released by Columbia Pictures, which is overseen by Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. One of the lessons of The Ugly Truth - beyond the obvious one that a desirable, desiring woman can never, ever, be happily single and sexual in modern Hollywood - is that holding to your hard-won ideals is of no consequence, at least when there's a guy to be hooked. When Mike is brought in, Abby fights him because she sees him for what he is: the lowest common denominator. Eventually, though, she succumbs to his coarse ways, even adopting his crude language, because, well, that's what the public wants.
But Abby doesn't have nearly as many dimensions; in fact, she's lucky the screenwriters gave her even one. At one point Mike asks her how often she masturbates, to which she replies that she doesn't: She finds the act "impersonal." So he sends her a pair of vibrating underpants which, of course, she ends up wearing to a dinner with some important TV station honchos. (As I don't need to tell you, mayhem and hilarity ensue.) I'm cautious about blaming Heigl for being lousy in a role that's sloppily conceived to begin with. But there's something a little indecent about the way she trades on her fresh-off-the-farm innocence: We're supposed to like Abby when she does that idiotic, giddy dance — she's supposed to be cute and charming and cuddly, all the things a nice girl should be. Elsewhere, she acknowledges that she's demanding and controlling, and that's supposed to be OK too; she's a modern woman, after all. But Heigl is playing attributes here, not a character. And there's never any real acknowledgment of Abby's hypocrisy: She wants to be cute when it can benefit her and controlling when it suits her, and that's supposed to constitute complexity (as opposed to, perhaps, just good old-fashioned manipulation). Heigl isn't sharp enough to bring that contradiction into relief.
Credit where credit is due: The Ugly Truth might be the first film in which a woman's yanking out of her hair extensions signals a true emotional climax. And it's just this sort of off-kilter quality that makes this script more impressive than its fluffier cousins. One senses a gleefully dark sensibility lurking in the minds of the film's three female screenwriters, who have no qualms about dialogue that might be tooquicktokeepupwith. Where run-of-the-mill rom-coms dodge pessimism and prurience and body-fluid jokes, The Ugly Truth excels, poking indiscreetly into the genre's every corner with more clear-eyed force than, say, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days would ever dare. Under the direction of Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), The Ugly Truth is indulgently glossy, refreshingly snarky and legitimately sexy. It's no art film (obvi!), no soulful indie flick and no When Harry Met Sally . . . for that matter. But when Mike advises Abby to be "the saint and the sinner, the librarian and the stripper," how can the hardened, rom-com-hating Thinking Woman not bark a gruff and hearty "Ha!"? The film is shallow and fleeting, candylike and summery. But there is no shame in that. And if you refuse to see it now, you'll see it on some airplane someday. And you'll watch it. And that's the ugly truth.
Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith do attempt to up the ante (and possibly make us forget about all the misogynist undertones to the film) by including some "adult" laughs but unfortunately the humour level is the juvenile equivalent to Gerard Butler grabbing Katherine Heigl's boob and screaming "HONK! HONK!" directly into the camera for 90 minutes. In fact, I probably would have rather watched that movie because at least one could argue it's some sort of postmodern comment on the objectification of women…or something. As it stands, The Ugly Truth just made me sad for the direction of the human race. But why listen to me? I'm just a girl.