The Ugly Truth (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Twenty years ago — almost to the day — moviegoers were introduced to Sally Albright in Rob Reiner and Nora Ephron's When Harry Met Sally. Sally (Meg Ryan) was a sunny but tightly wound city girl who found a perfect foil in loosey-goosey misanthrope Harry Burns (Billy Crystal). She owed something to Holly Hunter's Type-A TV news producer Jane Craig in Broadcast News, but she became the standard bearer for a certain kind of heroine: the sympathetic control freak.
The Ugly Truth arrives on this auspicious anniversary to remind us that it takes more than a list-maker with a pretty face to earn the "sympathetic" part of that description. Katherine Heigl may be trying desperately to channel some Sally into her role, but that's not the same as giving the audience a reason to like her.
Heigl plays Abby Richter, a TV news producer (watch out, Jane Craig!) with a Sacramento morning show that's floundering. She's also trying to find the guy to fit her checklist: being a "cat person," enjoying red wine, preferring tap water over bottled, etc.
Enter Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), host of a raunchy cable show, in which he gleefully shoots down the romantic fantasies women may have about men. Mike is brought in against Abby's wishes, but when she meets a hot doctor (Eric Winter), she grudgingly turns to Mike for advice on what guys really want.
We expect the predictable complications before Abby and Mike (spoiler!) figure out they're crazy about each other, and The Ugly Truth certainly heads in that direction. Director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde) knows how to pace this brand of comedy and how to cast solid supporting performers — like John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines as a sniping husband-and-wife anchor team. As a result, the film lopes along waiting for the moment when we start to care about whether our protagonists will get their "happily ever after."
That moment, however, never comes. Butler (P.S. I Love You) can be charismatic enough, but he seems hamstrung by his efforts to approximate an American accent. While the script — by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith — tries to soften him by giving him a nephew to mentor and a back-story of heartbreak, he's never particularly convincing either as a crass misogynist or a reformed crass misogynist.
Then there's Heigl (Knocked Up), who seemed poised for a breakout in this kind of role. Yet there's something chilly about the way she comes off. A character like this needs complexity that makes sense from the outset. Heigl may be game enough to hang upside-down from a tree in the name of a sight gag, but that doesn't make her the kind of actress an audience will embrace.
Heigl is also game for The Ugly Truth's "outrageous" set piece, in which Abby ends up at a business dinner (don't bother to ask how) wearing remote-controlled vibrating underwear, with the remote run by an oblivious boy at another table.
It's impossible for the moment not to evoke Sally's legendary deli scene, as Abby squeals her way through a presentation to her bosses. But this time, it's outrageousness without a human context, just a ridiculous contrivance with a risqué punch line. The Ugly Truth simply doesn't give us the kind of story, as Sally did, where we want to have what she's having.