If aliens watched our coming attractions, they’d get a perplexing view of human courting. In the trailer for (500) Days of Summer, Joseph Gordon Levitt falls madly in love with Zooey Deschanel after she croons along with the Smiths song playing on his iPod, thereby demonstrating both her taste and her romanticism. In the trailer for The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler informs Katherine Heigl that the only way she can snag a man is by wearing a push-up bra, giggling incessantly and keeping her critical judgments to herself. To die by your side / Is such a heavenly way to die? I believe Butler’s character would classify that as pussy rock.
A movie about an offensive lout should at least be offensive. (Exhibit A: Dane Cook’s filmography.) But The Ugly Truth only manages to be tired. Like last winter’s hit He’s Just Not That Into You, it’s a romantic comedy with the not-so-romantic premise that modern professional women know nothing about men until they’re schooled by a self-styled guru with a shock-jock style.
Heigl plays Abby, a cerebral control freak who produces a fluffy morning news show in Sacramento. Butler is the ranter on public-access cable who offers raunchy tutorials on “The Ugly Truth” about men and women and somehow manages to pull better ratings than Heigl can. Naturally, the station manager decides to hire him. Naturally, the two comely, charismatic leads hate each other on sight. Naturally, they also feel an undeniable attraction.
Soon Heigl is asking Butler for help as she tries to date an orthopedic surgeon (Eric Winter) who meets all the requirements on her personal relationship checklist. (It can’t be that long: Her target has great abs and an MD, but nothing resembling a personality.) Under the boor’s tutelage, she wears hair extensions and does her best to act like a breathing blow-up doll. It all goes swimmingly, but Butler is secretly suffering, because … surprise! Deep down, he has romantic feelings after all.
For a comedy, The Ugly Truth is short on funny people; the supporting characters barely exist. It does have a couple of naughty setpieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a pay-cable version of the sitcom “Two and a Half Men.” (One involves remote-controlled vibrating panties worn to a business dinner. Don’t ask.)
The three screenwriters, Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, don’t seem to be out to prove that women can be as bawdy as men. Nor do they appear particularly interested in updating the time-honored Taming of the Shrew scenario. (Lutz and Smith already did that with 10 Things I Hate About You, which launched them as a successful rom-com writing duo.) No: These writers are simply the technicians who’ve been employed to turn the beer-soaked backyard barbecue of those hit Judd Apatow comedies into a fast-food meal that’s safe for most members of the family. It’s not difficult to imagine their own checklist: Casual references to anal intercourse? Check. Sexual humiliation for the control freak? Check. Everyone grows up a little, and love conquers all? Check.
Despite Butler’s misogynistic posturing, the film never makes more than a brief foray into the realm of ugly truths. Both leads are likeable and seem to like each other; they show none of the deep-seated resentment and frustration that might allow the film to tap into real-life dating anxieties. Abby’s perfectionism is plausible enough, and the film’s best moment comes when she realizes maybe she can find a middle ground between constant criticism of her lovers and tittering assent. It’s a brief moment, though, in the life of a cartoon.
It would be a shame if The Ugly Truth convinced audiences that it takes real men to do the Apatow-style crude comedy magic. Apatow and his pals don’t always pull it off, either. The best comedy comes from deftly sketched characters, not formulas. And if you want evidence that woman can voice truths about relationships that are both ugly and laugh-out-loud funny, I suggest Julie Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris. That film doesn’t answer the question of whether it’s sexier to wear a push-up bra or sing along to The Smiths (or both), but it does demonstrate that neither sex has a monopoly on screwed-up behavior.