“The Ugly Truth” is an arch, contrived, entirely predictable romantic comedy assembled with sufficient audience-friendly elements to put it over as both a good girls’ night attraction and a date-night lure raunchy enough to leave couples in the right mood afterward. As such, and with the easy-to-watch Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler as cat and dog who initially hate each other so much that love is the only possible result, Sony should expect to reap some far-from-ugly midsummer B.O. returns from this commercially calculated cocktail.
Trying like mad to lay claim to a secure place in the sparsely populated realm of bankable, comedically oriented leading ladies, Heigl rather overplays her hand here as a beauteous control freak who’s so domineering with dates she needs advice from a man’s man on how to get laid. It’s an odd, far-fetched twist on the Pygmalion story, with the modern angle of poking holes in political correctness, one that might have been made marginally convincing by a dollop of backstory or psychology that pretended to explain the woman’s cluelessness with guys.
As it is, the strenuous outrage exhibited by Heigl’s TV producer, Abby Richter, at being forced to work with Butler’s macho-pig shock jock, Mike Chadway, registers as cartoonish overreaction. Faced with dwindling ratings for her Sacramento-based morning show, Abby is saddled with the outwardly rude and crude Chadway when a guest shot by the hitherto obscure public-access TV host provokes strong audience reaction to his rants about how women have to accept the male species’ basic caveman nature.
Bossy and indomitable at work, Abby misguidedly applies those same attributes to her personal life, which means she has none. When she falls (literally, from a tree) into the life of dreamboat neighbor Colin (Eric Winter), she dithers so terribly that she accepts help from Mike, who guarantees that, if she follows his advice to the letter, she’ll snag her man.
You’d think a woman who looks like Heigl wouldn’t need to do anything to attract male attention but, then again, in “Knocked Up,” she resorted to a tryst with the then-grubby Seth Rogen, so perhaps screenwriters Nicole Eastman (a first-timer) and Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (“Legally Blonde”) know better. In the event, Mike supervises Abby’s makeover via a shopping spree and new haircut, followed by a ballgame date at which Mike, like a modern Cyrano, instructs Abby over an earphone what to do and say to Colin, with mildly disastrous results.
Mike prepares his charge for a subsequent date with a gift of some vibrator-equipped undies, resulting in another would-be hilarious setpiece in which Abby becomes inadvertently vibrated during a very public business dinner. A director truly adept at carefully constructed slow-burn comedy and a star with disciplined comic gifts could have had a field day with such a scene, but what helmer Robert Luketic serves up feels more like a rehearsal than the polished gem it could have been; Heigl doesn’t even break a sweat.
Wrap-up is inevitable but needlessly hokey and undercut by awfully artificial process photography and visual effects, and a cloying musical score.
Handicapped by flat makeup, plastered-down hair and overly bright lighting, Heigl doesn’t look too great at the outset, which may or may not have been intentional given the storyline. But beyond what the script calls for, the thesp comes off as strident and overbearing; she overemphasizes everything in a way that suggests every beat was thought out, leaving little room for comic spontaneity. As cracks in Abby’s self-assurance show themselves and the character relaxes to Mike’s natural charm, Heigl’s appeal emerges, but she might advisedly seek projects with more heart.
Butler gives Mike an affable, lived-in quality that quickly takes the edge off the character’s deliberate abrasiveness and encourages the viewer to imagine he’s had abundant and varied life experience. Supporting turns are highly caricatured.