'The Ugly Truth': It Ain't A Pretty Picture

Katherine Heigl holds a glass of wine i i

hide captionGirl Yesterday: Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) works in a newsroom, but she's no Hildy Johnson. And even Heigl's gift for screwball comedy can't redeem a script determined to strip her character of her dignity.

Saeed Adyani/Sony Pictures
Katherine Heigl holds a glass of wine

Girl Yesterday: Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) works in a newsroom, but she's no Hildy Johnson. And even Heigl's gift for screwball comedy can't redeem a script determined to strip her character of her dignity.

Saeed Adyani/Sony Pictures

The Ugly Truth

  • Director: Robert Luketic
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy
  • Running Time: 101 minutes

Rated R: Sexual content and language

With: Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter, Bree Turner

Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl in 'The Ugly Truth' i i

hide captionBad education: He-man Mike (Gerard Butler) educates Abby on what men really want — and how women should act. The end result: a match made in Hollywood-stereotype heaven.

Saeed Adyani/Sony Pictures
Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl in 'The Ugly Truth'

Bad education: He-man Mike (Gerard Butler) educates Abby on what men really want — and how women should act. The end result: a match made in Hollywood-stereotype heaven.

Saeed Adyani/Sony Pictures

Sit up straight, girls, the he-men are back to instruct you in what women really want.

Parked queasily between He's Just Not That Into You and The Proposal, The Ugly Truth serves up yet another tightly wound career woman, ripe for chopping up, tenderizing and ravishing by an alpha male who knows what's good for her (no, it's not a promotion) better than she does.

It grieves me that The Ugly Truth was written by women — Nicole Eastman, along with Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who wrote the far superior The House Bunny.

Worse, their inspiration was a self-help book imaginatively titled The Manual and written, if that's the word, by Steve Santagati, a canny entrepreneur who has parlayed a lifetime of thinking with his primary sexual organ into glib cautionary tales for the modern woman who has everything but Mr. Right.

Which pretty much describes Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl), a comely but controlling TV news producer whose career has been as successful as her love-life has been wrecked by her need to stage-manage every date — and, it's implied, by her retro-feminist wish to mate with a sensitive male with whom she shares common interests.

Fresh from stripping for Hilary Swank in the even more wretched P.S. I Love You, lightweight Scottish charmer Gerard Butler hams it up with minor verve as Mike Chadway, the special correspondent who's brought on board Abby's show against her will to boost its flagging ratings with laddish words of wisdom for the lovelorn. (Read: sexually deprived.)

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. Among the choicer manifestations: Abby finds herself brought to involuntary orgasm at a corporate dinner by a small boy deploying a remote control. Funny!

If this nasty little sex war were pushed all the way, it might at least be parsed as satire. Alert, however, to the fact that they're catering to the I'm-not-a-feminist-but ... generation of women — ladies who want their career achievement and their happy-ever-after tied up together in a shiny pink bow — the screenwriters bestow on Mike a history littered with romantic rejection, thus softening him up for the inevitable clinch with Abby. Said embrace will persuade them both that they're meant for one another because, get this, they both prefer tap water to sparkling.

The day after I saw The Ugly Truth, I happened to screen His Girl Friday for a class of students from the Middle East, France, Mexico and the United States. In their oohing and aahing over the fabulous threads so carelessly worn by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, their delight in the crisp back-and-forth banter gloriously ad-libbed by the two stars from the immortal screenplay (by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), I saw and felt all the unabashed glamour, wit and sheer elan that's missing from romantic comedy today.

Lord knows, director Howard Hawks was no feminist. But in giving Russell free rein to play Hildy Johnson as a woman who's at her most fulfilled and attractive to a man when she's excelling at her job, he gave American cinema a sexy feminist prototype for the ages.

That was in 1940, and unless you count Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada — and look what happened to her love life, never mind her lovely assistant's — we've been sliding downhill ever since.

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