The Ugly Truth Not All Bad, but Too Dang Tidy and Safe
By Kristin Battestella
I keep swearing I won’t watch another Gerard Butler romantic comedy – heck, how many are there? The Ugly Truth, however, actually isn’t that bad thanks to some fun scenes, innuendo, and chemistry amid the cast. Unfortunately, this 2009 romp falls prey to its own predictability, short sightedness, and every pretty expectation of the romantic comedy genre.
TV producer Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) reluctantly accepts crass guest reporter Mike Chadway (Butler) as part of her morning news program. Mike’s ‘The Ugly Truth’ segment soon becomes a hit in the ratings, pleasing Abby’s network bosses while her personal life and controlling checklist dates go awry. Mike vows that the relationship advice and man tips from his show are the exact thing Abby needs in order to land handsome doctor and new next door neighbor Colin (Eric Winter). Her transformation from prudish to knock out, however, soon affects Mike just as much as the ensnared Colin.
Like Pygmalion or My Fair Lady and The Taming of the Shrew before it, The Ugly Truth presents every rom com cliché while the audience waits for the inevitable from director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), new writer Nicole Eastman, and producers and co-writers Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (Ella Enchanted, The House Bunny). As if these people would not end up together after he does her up pretty for someone else and of course, they fall in love during the process instead. For a supposedly mature comedy targeted toward today’s intelligent audiences, the too sweet plot here doesn’t go far enough. Dirty word drops go through the motions, and considering a title like this, there isn’t enough vulgar or hard sexual content. The Ugly Truth comes off as pretty tame with no nudity or pushing the envelope – tumblr is more in the gutter than Mike’s show within a show! Nothing here is shocking – which hampers a lot of the laugh out loud possibilities – and again, real news programs and daytime talk shows offer more scandalous material these days. The potential is here to take the battle of the sexes to the next level, but The Ugly Truth goes backward by adhering to the romantic nineties movies ideal page for page. Nothing new comes in the expected, tried and true public revelation finale here. Once the high school dance, then the college competition, Someone Like You already gave adults the televised confession before The Ugly Truth. The heart symbols on the posters akin to today’s “it’s complicated” and “in a relationship” social media clicks, but The Ugly Truth would have been better had it abandoned the predictable comedy formulas for a sardonic, serious look on screwed up relationships in the 21st century workplace.
Mike flirts with Abby from the start, smacking her ass, drinking from her glass. He admits he thinks of her sexually and tells her that she is a very attractive, but inaccessible woman. He’s distracted by her activities, says they make a great team, and gets aroused by her “teaching the teacher” touch. Everything he tells her about how to get Colin is surely the way to get him, too – he knows it is working on Colin because he himself likes her. Mike is upset at the thought of her Lake Tahoe weekend plans, he initiates the dance with Abby, and I could go on with yet more examples that she was too stupid to see. He buys her vibrating panties, for goodness sake; The Ugly Truth is not the mysterious relationship ninety minute rocket science it makes itself out to be. Abby hasn’t seen enough rom coms apparently, and the men versus women honesty here is marred by this pulling pigtails and wasting time. Why change her for another guy before revealing your own matching nature to who she originally was? Do people actually do this instead of just asking someone out or getting to know them warts and all? Mike is supposed to be oafish and seemingly beneath Abby, but the naughty messages on his phone, gawking female co-workers, and one hard up sales lady certainly find him appealing. It’s totally apparent that Mike is simply an unqualified guy who’s been burned. This is even suggested three times in The Ugly Truth before anyone realizes it – affirmation coming from an on-TV burn, of course – but by that point, the movie is almost over and a kiss is supposed to make everything all better.
“They want to be actresses, who am I to kill their dreams? … I only slept with the one who can read.” Gerard Butler has admitted Mike Chadway is the role most like himself, and that is kind of how he plays the part. Though he seems puffy or bloated in some scenes and there’s apparently a concerted effort to not have him shirtless – except when he’s covered with Jello – Butler does not look bad here. Maybe he’s not as uber unrealistically buff as in 300, but he’s not flabby as paparazzi photos from the time would suggest, and this normal, natural build, dark hair, and hint of scruff is everyman refreshing. His bad American accent, however, stinks in comparison to his natural Scottish brogue. Butler’s charm, personality, and naughty delivery can be down right fetching, and he has some great off the cuff zingers such as “Why am I a manwhore?” and after licking said Jello off a girl’s finger, “I can still taste you…you know what I mean!” However, this relaxed wit and timing is thanks to Butler’s charisma and not the stunted script that leaves him with a few failed deadpan jokes. Mike’s sentimental but undercooked family angles are also never given any special dimension beyond plot contrivances and the obligatory awww moments in relation to the romance – an obvious infatuation that dumbs down everyone in The Ugly Truth.
Abby is a control freak, sure, but what’s so wrong with her as is? Can’t she be a strong, powerful, confident, at work woman without changing any of that to land a man? Hair extensions and a good bra are all you need – that’s not a very positive message. We may poke fun or archetype this perception of all business ice queen prude, but Abby’s misrepresenting herself to Colin instead of being upfront is no better. Viewers only learn the cliché checklist basics about Abby so we can bare minimum relate to the drastic change in what she will do for a guy. Are we supposed to like her as herself or as the girl she’s pretending to be? The audience has no chance to see the female spectrum and intriguing complexities between the nun or slut extremes – this “librarian and the stripper” Ginger or Maryann duality is too broadly defined against all this compromising for a man she is isn’t so sure she really wants. Despite her Grey’s Anatomy success, I still think in some ways Katherine Heigl is just repeating her debut in My Father the Hero over and over again. Unfortunately, her best moments are somewhat spoiled in the trailer, and the physical comedy also feels forced. Although that goofy slapstick might have been an unnecessarily intentional attempt to make Heigl more awkward than she really is, the irony is that Abby might have been better off with Colin had Mike not interfered with these elaborate antics. Her making his advice go awry is played for the laughs too many times – the kiss cam at the baseball game, her orgasmic dinner thanks to the vibrating panties. These segments can be amusing or cause a chuckle, but the standard embarrassment leading to love measures are not new and again, today masturbation and sexual topics are dealt with far more frankly. The Mike and Abby dance scene is sexy for fans of the stars, but can the viewer enjoy that they’ve finally caught on to what we’ve been watching all along? Eric Winter (Witches of East End) as Colin is very pretty to look at, too, but he serves as an undeveloped stock fifth wheel who is also somehow the only person other than Abby who remains unaware of what’s happening. Colin wraps a sprained ankle and answers the phone in a white lab coat just to show he is a surgeon – therefore he needs no further development than actually being a prick once said lab coat comes off in the end. The Ugly Truth takes another step back by objectifying its characters instead of treating them as the intelligent people they are supposed to be.
In fact, the supporting players in The Ugly Truth make for much more interesting possibilities than the standard clichés presented. John Michael Higgins (Ally McBeal) as Larry and Cheryl Hines (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as Georgia are rocky husband and wife anchors with excellent wit and banter. They are angry and loving as the film progresses – perhaps showing the pros and cons of Mike’s ‘Ugly Truth’ tests better than Abby’s transformation – and their workplace tug and pull is sassy and unique. Sadly, their quips don’t receive enough attention because of course that would deviate from the run of the mill rom com form. The Ugly Truth could have been an enjoyable ensemble piece with several grown-up, real world relationship dynamics that just happen to hit the fan at a wacky TV station. Instead, great one-liners from the secondary players are tossed in so fast that the audience has no chance to chuckle. We have to get back to the Pygmalion rather than let characters such as Bree Turner’s (Grimm) Joy fully blossom. Abby’s best friend has to happily remain in her place as the lonely assistant who lives vicariously through her. If Abby was such a bad case, what does that say about Joy? Are we supposed to believe she is content in this inferior position when she seems to be just as confident in her job – if not more – and romantically available? She sees both Abby and Mike’s flaws, their chemistry, and knows what to do about it and anything that goes wrong during the entire film yet receives no recognition in The Ugly Truth. Maybe it’s asking too much for the quote Jello twins (I’m not even sure who they are in the credits because I can’t recall if they are actually named onscreen!) to be developed characters, but their saint or sinner perspectives, slutty humor, or misunderstood dorkable could have embodied some interesting repartee. Cranky boss Nick Searcy (From the Earth to the Moon) is always fearful of bad ratings, but we never get a sense of the humor in his hopelessness or the incompetence of fellow news crew such as Yvette Nicole Brown (Community) because they only appear in a few early scenes before sadly disappearing all together. But hey, Craigy Fergy and The Late Late Show make a penultimate appearance!
The Ugly Truth is also showing its age thanks to now dated technology, big televisions, answering machines, old flip phones, and barely visible text messages beneath the Sprint product placement banners. Sprint? Sprint? Of the moment, in your face pop music also overshadows some scenes and makes excuses for long transitions and montages. The fashions are somewhat generic, but it bugs me greatly that you can see those hummin’ black undies underneath Abby’s white dress! Why didn’t anyone have the foresight to change the color of one or the other? Like that remote would be so big and obvious either. The Sacramento locales and setting are different and pleasant, but it’s still typical California suave and sunshine accented with big city moments. Perhaps somewhere more fictional or small town anonymous might have added flavor or quirky to the form. Ironically, the off the cuff bloopers from The Ugly Truth seem more genuine and funny with natural quotes and catchy Freudian slips. One can’t watch those video outtakes or deleted scenes on television airings of The Ugly Truth, of course, and too many nonsensical edits, language cuts, and excised innuendo on TV further create a bland, going through the motions narrative. If you watch, definitely stick with an unedited edition – although this isn’t a hard R and is probably safe for wise teenagers today.
Because it is comprised of such repeat cliché fodder, The Ugly Truth is certainly watchable, even rewatchabe for romance fans aware of the film’s routine expectations. Fans of the cast can enjoy their charm even if the joy of the ensemble is largely wasted potential trapped in the same old, same old. The Ugly Truth simply doesn’t have the broad reaching, massive audience, mature sex comedy appeal for which it might have hoped, but it isn’t all bad when figuring in the players’ charms against the rom com formula. Viewers have to accept The Ugly Truth for what it is rather than what it could have been and take the fun where you can get it. Otherwise, you’ll be pulling out those hair extensions!