Was Hollywood wrong in putting its money on Katherine Heigl to be the next Julia Roberts? Heigl, a large, pretty actress of farm-girl robustness and pale orange skin and hair tones, had emerged from the cast of Grey's Anatomy to serve as Seth Rogen's femme foil in the surprise hit Knocked Up, then scored on her own as the perpetual bridesmaid in 27 Dresses. More than Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson, her prime rivals among early-30s contenders for the Roberts ring, Heigl radiated a pensive solidity that, if properly exploited, could have spurred the return of a warmer, less dizzy brand of romantic comedy.
I speak in the past tense, since Heigl comes near to emptying her reserves of goodwill with a disastrous new concoction called The Ugly Truth. In its wan attempt to be raunchy, the picture fails where Judd Apatow has usually succeeded; written by three women, this is a girl's mistaken idea of an R-rated comedy. Heigl, as star and executive producer, doesn't do herself any favors either. She spends virtually the entire movie getting mocked up and knocked out.
Here, as in her two earlier starring roles, Heigl is an efficient professional who has no luck finding men. Her Abby is the producer of a Sacramento TV news show whose ratings skyrocket when the on-air team is joined by Mike (Gerard Butler), the host of a late-night cable program called The Ugly Truth. Mike is a macho man with a Cro-Magnon spin on sex, telling his female listeners, "We fall in love with your tits and your ass. And we stick around for what you're gonna do with them." Desperate to get a man any man but Mike she takes his advice on landing the hunky surgeon (Eric Winter) who's moved in across the way. Mike will play a burly Cyrano to the doctor's winsome Roxane until Abby realizes that Mr. Wrong is right for her.
The screenwriters Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith had one sharp idea: to explore the polar-opposite rules of guy comedies and gal comedies. Guy comedy revels in the blithe display of unruly behavior; a Rogen or Jason Segel character doesn't do or say crude things for shock's sake but as an expression of his unhousebroken personality. It's not what he does; it's what he is. Gal comedy plays on these same embarrassing words or situations to test the heroine's decorum and destroy her dignity. In both kinds of movies, the activities and attitudes that men are proud or unaware of are exactly the ones that women try desperately to suppress. The dichotomy is both reductive and profound: the male brute's let-it-all-hang-out vs. the civilized female's try-to-pretend-it-didn't-happen.
So The Ugly Truth's plot is a series of humiliations for Abby. At a restaurant meeting with network clients, she happens to be wearing a pair of sexually vibrating panties that Mike gave her, and, in a gloss on Meg Ryan's fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally..., she writhes, way too long, in ecstasy and mortification. At a ball game with the doctor, she follows Mike's advice and fellates a hot dog, then is seen on the scoreboard Kiss-Cam bending over, and I can't even type what happens, it's so demeaning and annoying.
Yet Abby deserves all this public grief because, at heart, she's a pill and a pain. Beneath her cheery demeanor is the iron will of a control freak who is bossy both to her staff and to the men she might get it on with; for one blind date, she prepared a series of mutual talking points. We're led to understand that her need to dominate comes from a lack of erotic pleasure in her life. What the movie doesn't address is the root problem of Abby's character. It's not that she's this way because she hasn't gone to bed with a guy. It's that no guy would go to bed with her because she's this way.
Mike, meanwhile, for all his rough edges, is not a predator or a bully but, for his and the movie's perspective, a truth teller. More important, he's comfortable in his own skin, like the Rogen and Segel guys. The Ugly Truth thus establishes its agenda as a rehab process for Abby, not a comeuppance for Mike. What a romantic comedy should be doing is showing what's attractive and limiting in two people, then bringing these plausible opposites together at the middle. Something is very wrong when the beast is instantly more appealing than the beauty and when a comedy becomes an essay in misogyny.
The director, Robert Luketic, who did the very agreeable Legally Blonde (written by two of this movie's screenwriters), falls down big time here. He gets no connection, let alone chemistry, between the two leads, and he botches that obligatory romantic-comedy trope, the falling-in-love-on-the-dance-floor scene. (The film's one decent moment: an elevator kiss.) And as long as he's doing an R-rated comedy, shouldn't he observe one off the genre's cardinal rules and have someone go topless? If not Heigl, then Butler, whose magnificently bulked-up chest was one of the attractions of 300.
I'm not saying that The Ugly Truth is a career ender for Heigl. Indeed, as the first romantic comedy in wide release since Sandra Bullock's The Proposal five weeks ago, the movie will attract its share of dating couples and single women. But if you're looking for a rom-com with a higher IQ and an almost obsessive aim to charm its audience, you'd do better with (500) Days of Summer, which should soon get to a theater near you, than this (500) ways of abasing Katherine Heigl.