Movie Review: The Ugly Truth
By Matthew Huntley
July 23, 2009
Do characters in romantic comedies have to be likable in order for the movie to work? Most would say yes, but in the real world, there are people we don't like who still manage to find love, despite what we think of them. I think it would be a real achievement if a filmmaker were to make a smart and funny romantic comedy about an appalling, contemptuous person — one whom we care about, but ultimately despise — who finds love. That would be one way to shake up the formula a bit.
The Ugly Truth could have been that romantic comedy, but it winds up playing it safe and sticks to the tried and true rules of the genre. It contains a rather unlikable heroine (at least she was to me), whom the filmmakers sympathize with and see as a victim. I found her annoying, clumsy, self-centered and vicious. Given her qualities, I wanted the movie to challenge me by having her meet somebody who actually found these traits attractive, but not at the convenience of the plot.
The woman I speak of is Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl), a diligent yet uptight producer of a news program in Sacramento. Like many other romantic comedy heroines, Abby is cold, controlling and obsessive-compulsive, which also explains why she's single. Despite her hard work and skills, her show is losing viewers and in danger of cancellation.
That's where Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), the host of a cable show called The Ugly Truth, comes in. He's a relationship advisor who speaks strictly from a primal male point of view, informing single women it's their own fault no guy wants them, that they're the ones doing something wrong (like not spending enough time on the Stairmaster). When Abby calls in to give Mike a piece of her mind, he knows right off the bat she's lonely and alone.
The next day, whaddya know, Abby's boss announces Mike will have a spot on Abby's show to help boost ratings. Naturally, the two start out as enemies, but it doesn't take a genius to guess where the plot is headed. Mike and Abby make a bet: he'll quit if he can't successfully get her to land her hunky next door neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter), providing a perfect opportunity for a typical rom-com sequence in which Mike acts as Abby's personal Hitch, telling her how to dress, walk, talk, eat, etc.
Essentially, Mike's trying to get Abby to act the way every guy wants, even if it means not being herself. If Mike is under the impression guys want girls to act subservient, needy and helpless, then he (or maybe it's screenwriters Nicole Eastman and Karen McCullah Lutz) doesn't know that much about real guys. Guys I know, including myself, like women who are independent, speak their mind and do things for themselves. These women are great because it means putting less effort into the relationship (sorry, but that's sort of an ugly truth itself). The movie suggests Mike thinks the way he does because he's been hurt in the past, but it makes little attempt to develop his history.
Just when I thought The Ugly Truth was heading into fresher territory, it turns around and heads back down a more familiar path of would-be opposites finding themselves attracted to each other. How many times have we seen this premise? Last month alone brought us The Proposal, which continues to gross millions, but luckily that movie was aided by the charm of its two leads, even if was completely predictable.
Heigl and Butler are no Sandra Bullock or Ryan Reynolds, but they sill provide The Ugly Truth with some decent moments. There's an inspired scene involving a female orgasm that Heigl pulls off quite well; and Butler is a breath of fresh air for the genre with his raspy voice and raw demeanor. But the movie breaks down in the last third and abandons any notion of challenging us by possibly keeping its main characters apart and suggesting even unlikable people like Abby can still make a relationship work with a nice guy like Colin. Why not examine her willingness to change herself just to get a date and offer some insight as to why some women really do that? That would have been much more interesting than what takes place at the end in the hot air balloon.
Just as The Proposal proved, audiences are insatiable for the same old stuff from romantic comedies, so I have a feeling a lot of people will also enjoy The Ugly Truth. Perhaps it's because it makes them feel safe, which, as Mike would probably agree, is another reason why people stay in relationships, but that's a whole other story.
I was disappointed by the movie and wanted something more daring. Perhaps after Abby revealed her true self to Colin he'd continue to like her anyway and it would be her unlikable qualities that eventually win him over. That approach would have been something new and different, proving that characters don't, in fact, have to be likable for romantic comedies to work. Such a romantic comedy has yet to be made.