Plain Old 'Ugly'
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Perhaps you have a heart condition, and even the slightest surprise will threaten your life. Maybe our current times have you easily startled, and you find that entertainments unfolding in unexpected ways make you nervy and upset. Or you're looking for the movie-going equivalent of municipal bonds, where your investment of time and money is met with a minimal return. Well, if you like things that are predictable, I can predict you'll love "The Ugly Truth," a new romantic comedy starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. I sincerely doubt anyone else will respond to its mix of labored scenes; smutty, tittering, unfunny jokes; and "chemistry" between the two leads without even the slightest hint of fizz or fun.
Directed by Robert Luketic ("Legally Blonde," "21"), "The Ugly Truth" begins as Heigl's Abby, a morning news producer at a Sacramento TV station, is being confronted with dwindling ratings. As her boss Stuart (Nick Searcy) explains, in the recent ratings period, "We got beat by all the network shows, including a rerun of 'Who's the Boss' -- the one where the vacuum breaks." Abby's already trying to juggle a personal life with the tight-clenched grip of a white-knuckle perfectionist -- on a first date, she produces a piece of paper and notes, "I took the liberty of printing out several talking points ..." -- and so when Stuart tries to spice up the ratings by hiring a coarse ranter from the distant realms of public access cable to spice up the show, she's aghast.
The new hire, Mike (Butler), has been producing his own show called "The Ugly Truth," making enlightened-cave man speeches about how, if women are looking for a relationship, they should just give up on fixing men and start fixing themselves -- "It's called a Stairmaster, ladies -- use it!" Abby despises Mike's coarse ways, but when she meets her dreamy new neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter), she's so desperate to make an impression and keep Colin interested that she actually asks Mike for his guidance and advice. He tells her to up her game from lingerie to hair length: "You're all about ... comfort and efficiency." She objects: "What's wrong with comfort and efficiency?" He fires back: "Nothing, but nobody wants to [sleep with] them!" (He, of course, does not say "sleep with.") This limp volley is the film's idea of champagne wit, but it's got the flat, sour tang of vinegar.
The rest of the film builds to a combination package of clichés: the antagonism between the two softens to friendship, then blooms to affection, then curdles to anger before the closing reunion of the two, complete with an on-camera declaration of love between Mike and Abby. She asks him, "You're in love with me -- why?" Butler gives a grizzled, half-shaven smile: "Beats the s--- out of me, but I am." This is all said as the twosome are aboard a hot-air balloon, in a sequence with so much cheap CGI you half expect Shrek to fly by astride a purple dragon, but that's not the point. Mike can't say why he loves Abby because movies like "The Ugly Truth" build to their leads falling in love solely because that's how movies like this are supposed to end, and so they do, instead of earning that climactic clinch through character or plot or insight. The only reason Mike and Abby fall for each other is because they're the lead characters, and that's how movies like this work, with the lead-footed trudge of the condemned toward the inevitable.
Heigl plays another clenched control freak in the mold of her much funnier work in the much funnier "Knocked Up." But while the film may demonstrate how she's aerobicized down to the millimeter, it also demonstrates how her acting skills have far less flexibility and strength than her form. And Butler's never been funny before (unless you count "300," but that was hardly on purpose) and he's not funny here. The only surprise Butler offers is listening for which words in his dialogue will betray his Scots accent, with "psycho-babble" and "you" being the most diverting examples. And I know that's a foolish thing to pick up on, but considering how dull the script is (from a story by Nicole Eastman, but polished by Luketic's "Legally Blonde" scripters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith), it was more diverting to listen for surprises in Butler's phonetics than watch gags recycled from movies like "There's Something About Mary" and "When Harry Met Sally" play out as pale copies of the originals. "The Ugly Truth" thinks it's bold, risky and taboo-breaking, but the much uglier truth is that it plays as a bland, rote bundle of clichés wrapped up so tight it suffocates itself.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.