July 30, 2009

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The Ugly Truth (R)
Katherine Heigl deserves so much better than The Ugly Truth, a painful romantic comedy that turns her “shrill” knob all the way to 11.

Abby (Heigl) is the producer of a Sacramento newscast that is losing in the ratings game. To juice it up, her boss brings in Mike (Gerard Butler), the host of a public access show called The Ugly Truth who spouts a “men are pigs and women need to learn to get in the mud with them” kind of philosophy. His job is to offer the same kind of incendiary advice on the news show and get people — love him or hate him — to tune in.

Abby is of course horrified by his unenlightened pose and by the fact that her boss is using such a trashy way to boost raisings. But when she meets Colin (Eric Winter), a man who she thinks might fit her high ideals, she decides to let Mike help her flirt her way into his heart. If it doesn’t work, Mike promises, he’ll quit the show.

Hmm, do you think Abby and Mike will start to fall for each other? No, probably not — that would be so unexpected and surprising and so unlike a bazillion other romantic comedies out there. And even though Abby owns a cat and claims to be completely ignorant of some basic Sex and the City aspects of being an adult woman, and even though Mike makes crude jokes that Andrew Dice Clay would groan at, I don’t think this movie would fall back on clichés.

Oh. Wait.

I don’t mind the raunchy sex talk, the aggressive swearing and the occasional nudity that have become the must-haves of R-rated comedy. I just need all those wiener jokes and naughty words to be funny. Even if comedy bits are kind of familiar they can still have something surprising in their delivery or setup, something that gets you to laugh. Just because lots of people have covered a song doesn’t mean you won’t like hearing it covered by somebody else. And even more important than doing something innovative with familiar kinds of humor is having characters — particularly female characters — that are likeable, actually likeable, not just pretty and sort of pathetic. Too often romantic comedies fall back on what happens here — the guy is all rough exterior with a likeable soft center and the girl is shrill and angry with a sad lonely center. It’s aggravating and exhausting to sit through a movie clearly aimed at women that has as its center a one-dimensional and unlikeable female character.

Here’s the difference between something like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Year One or even The Proposal (recent movies that are stupid, crass and predictable, respectively, but which I’d rather see again than this ugly mess) and The Ugly Truth: those movies are of uneven quality and have many flaws but they didn’t make me angry to sit through. I don’t remember thinking “shut up, movie” during the aforementioned not-likely-to-be-nominated-for-an-Oscar bunch as I did several times in this movie. The lead characters didn’t grate on me the way they did here. I didn’t leave wanting a break from Shia LaBeouf or Sandra Bullock the same way I wanted a break from Katherine Heigl after this movie. By the end of the movie, her voice takes on the same nerve-pinching quality as, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks does in that stupid Christmas song or a jackhammer does when construction begins on the street outside your bedroom window at 7 a.m. It’s not you, Miss Heigl, it’s me; I need to be away from you.

Which is too bad — Katherine Heigl has the ability to be a really funny, genuine comic actress. Despite being supermodel beautiful, she can act goofy. Here, after meeting the perfect Colin, she says goodnight to him on his doorstep and then does a spazzy happy dance when he closes the door. OK, we’ve seen that before, but she carries it off. As much as she later seems to have not liked her role in Knocked Up (and, to some extent, who can blame her; that Judd Apatow movie was pretty boy-centered), that movie and her scenes with Leslie Mann, who played her sister, represent some of Heigl’s best, most natural moments of movie acting. (I gave up on Grey’s Anatomy too long ago to be able to comment on her career overall.)

Clearly, this talented actress deserves better than this. Won’t someone please put her in a funny romantic comedy already, rather than shrill dreary ones like this? D+

Rated R for sexual content and language. Directed by Robert Luketic and written by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, The Ugly Truth is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony.