Review: The Ugly Truth, 2009, dir. Robert Luketic

I’m putting this out there right now: I’m actually not reviewing this movie, despite what the title says. Frankly, reviewing it would be far too easy, and while writing negative criticism is tons of fun there are times when it can be somewhat of a slog, almost a routine or a chore of some sort or another. What I propose to do instead should be far, far more interesting for you and me, which is win-win if you ask me; rather than analyze the movie and tell you what about it I hated (in summation: everything, even the final credits which gave me sweet release from my torment), I’m going to go point-by-point and pick out the elements that really make this movie a stinker– and how they could have been changed for the better.

1) The Ugly Truth gets Katherine Heigl all wrong: Heigl has devolved from a potentially huge female star to box office poison after making everyone fall in love with her in Knocked Up, but that’s not to say that she should be stuck in actress jail for the duration of her career, playing offensively uptight and impatient characters like Abby Richter. I would say that the screenwriters either do not understand women or bear a deep-seated hatred toward them, but each person involved with the script is female, which either leads me to believe that they’re self-loathing or they’re just lazy and incompetent. I’m leaning toward the latter. The crime here isn’t just that Abby is crafted out of the most banal and stomach-churning cliches that can be imposed upon female characters in cinema– she’s super controlling, career-oriented to the point where she literally has nobody but a house cat for companionship, she has a house cat, she has a checklist of traits her perfect man must possess– it’s that she embodies all of those things and is being portrayed by an actress who herself represents none of them. As a woman and an actress, Heigl has poise, confidence, and self-worth, and as Knocked Up proves she knows her way around a punchline, so why not take advantage of her assets instead of requiring her to just make a fool of herself? Abby could have been cut from the same substantive cloth as Alison Scott, and The Ugly Truth would have been better for it just by virtue of allowing Heigl to play to her strengths. In the end, any actress with the base qualifications necessary to star in a studio rom-com could have taken this role and done exactly the same thing without embarrassing themselves quite as much.

2) Katherine Heigl gets Katherine Heigl all wrong: The Ugly Truth makes Heigl’s comments about Knocked Up look even more misguided than they are solely in context with the latter film. I disagree strongly with her argument– I think that Apatow’s film paints a positive and a negative side to all of its characters, male and female alike– but that’s neither here nor there. If Knocked Up really is the sexist movie she claims it is, then what in the world is she doing headlining a film like The Ugly Truth? Luketic’s picture paints the sexes, and the never-ending battle that is fought between them, in  ridiculously broad strokes to the point of obliterating any suggestion of nuance or subtlety while black-and-white-washing every grey area the film could potentially have. If she thinks Knocked Up is “a little sexist”, then I’m dying to know how she justifies starring in a film that embraces every negative depiction of modern womanhood under the sun (and also slides her into a pair of vibrating panties– you know, for laughs!). Heigl’s well within her rights to decree Knocked Up to be sexist, though I think she’s off-base, but if she wants to make that claim then she needs to be able to justify a movie that pole-vaults right over her admirable feminist sensibilities.

3) Let Gerard Butler just be a chauvinist: Butler represents the single most entertaining part of the entire film, if only because he seems to be having an absolute ball playing misogynistic TV personality Mike Chadway, whose sudden appearance in Abby’s professional life presents her with an ethical conundrum (she can’t abide Chadway’s sexist and obnoxious perspective, but she also can’t deny that his presence is singlehandedly saving her morning show from a slow death wrought by poor ratings). So when it’s revealed that Mike is actually a good guy beneath that pig-headed, anti-romantic veneer, the film not only loses its driving conflict– because once it’s revealed that there’s more to Mike than his inclination toward the salacious, he instantly becomes a relationship candidate for Abby– but it loses its one source of zazz, since the moment that that happens he ceases to be Mike. But Mike could still have been Mike and still represented a potential partner for Abby, and— most of all– the film could have kept its congruity nonetheless. We know Mike is a good guy– and honestly, probably the kind of guy most women would be willing to date over the bland, androgynous male “shell” that characters like Abby profess to represent the ideal of the gender. For all of his less flattering qualities, he’s family material, and he doesn’t need to lose the former characteristics to fit into the latter role and end the film as Abby’s significant other. Or, alternately,

4) Keep the two principles apart at the end: Spoiler alert– Mike and Abby end up getting together in the finale! If you didn’t see that coming from a mile away, then you’re lucky, because you have somehow managed to live your life ignorant of the painfully predictable tropes films like these live and die by. And if you feel like I’ve ruined the film for you, well, trust me, you’ll thank me later once you realize what I’ve spared you from having to watch. But I’m digressing, here: the point is that if Mike and Abby didn’t end up in bed together by the time the credits roll, The Ugly Truth would have been a much more interesting film. On one level the title would have suddenly become more self-reflective; “the ugly truth” is that Abby and Mike just aren’t compatible as a couple, even if there is some kind of mutual attraction between the two of them and even if they do strangely compliment each other the way that many real couples tend to. Maybe Mike reconciles with an old flame and Abby winds up with the unappealing and dull Colin (or someone more interesting, if the writers knew how to write characters like him well), and they end acknowledging that their feelings will remain unrequited. Something bittersweet could really have given The Ugly Truth some much-needed chutzpah.

5. Don’t shy away from the raunch: The Ugly Truth shows the potential for some seriously raunchy dialogue and action at a few points in its plot, but it never fully commits to any of the more lowbrow content it hints at. This is a shame primarily because having Hiegl come face-to-face with her perfect man’s protruding peter during their very first encounter should be absolutely hysterically awkward and uncomfortable, but it’s sanitized and highlighted by intentional brevity. For a film about a wound-up, stressed-out character walking into the wild world of male chauvinism, The Ugly Truth is incredibly clean and smut-free, only going so far as to have Hiegl repeat the word “cock” a number of times in a row when it should instead go out of its way to be as consistently vulgar as possible– or as necessary. Think Knocked Up, Superbad, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but with gender-swapped principles. That’s a movie I’d be interested in seeing.

Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with The Ugly Truth that ain’t wrong with your standard romantic comedy/chick flick fare. It’s standard for the genre. Which means that it’s sub-standard for my tastes, and of course then we come around to the fact that the movie isn’t made for me. And it’s clearly not. I don’t know if I can honestly criticize a movie for not being what I want it to be, and I know that critiquing films like this is sort of an exercise in futility. At the same time, I can’t help myself, and I can’t help but be curious about how the film could have turned out if different sensibilities drove it.

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Ugly Truth, 2009, dir. Robert Luketic

  1. I’m more inclined to go with the copious amounts of sexism in the film, from the suggestion that women like misogynists to the argument that men handling broken hearts by becoming misogynists. Terrible film.

    • I dunno, Ross, I’ve seen worse than this, and as bad as the movie is it’s hard to be bothered singling it out as such. Its quality isn’t that much of a surprise; I’m more off-put by movies that should be good than movies that are pretty much built around awful conventions and cliches.

      Darren, definitely right on there. Films like this paint a pretty unpleasant picture of gender relations, which is really what’s at the core of my dislike for them more than the fact that they’re “girly” or “romantic”. I don’t mind a good rom-com– The Devil Wears Prada, for example, is really solid stuff and the kind of chick flick I’d like to see studios invest in more often.

      • Yep. I mean, it’s okay to explore negative gender stereotypes or to have flawed leads ((500) Days of Summer does this well) but to take a stereotypical starting point that is insulting (men are misogynists; women love being objectified and treated like crap by misogynists) and treating it as read really irritates me. the film seems to be asking us to basically nod along and say, “yeah, it’s funny because it’s soooo true!”

        (500) Days of Summer flips audience expectations on the head, without even making a big deal of it. The guy is the emotionally vulnerable and needy one, while the girl is somewhat blind to her partner’s feelings.

        • And that kind of writing is lazy, relying on hard-wired preconceptions about gender roles and characteristics rather than requiring some genuine insight and thought from its scribes. But that kind of formula works because it keeps things simple and doesn’t ask too much from its core audience, which– not to be insulting– largely consists of people who go to the movie to turn off their brains.

          I actually dislike 500 Days of Summer for a lot of reasons, mostly because while it does nicely twist the gender roles around, it doesn’t do so with the kind of deft touch needed to keep both principles neutral. Tom is almost unquestionably the victim while Summer is manipulative and uncaring. The thing is I don’t think Webb means to peg the characters into such singular roles, but ultimately I didn’t get much more out of them than those base factors.

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