Thursday, July 23, 2009
Twenty years ago American moviegoers were introduced to Sally Albright in When Harry Met Sally. As played by Meg Ryan, she was a sunny but tightly-wound city girl who found a perfect foil in loosey-goosey misanthrope Harry Burns (Billy Crystal). Sally owed more than a little to Holly Hunter’s Type-A, scheduled-crying-jag TV news producer Jane Craig in Broadcast News, but she became the standard bearer for a certain kind of romantic-comedy heroine: the sympathetic control freak.
Katherine Heigl may be trying desperately to channel some Sally – and some Jane – into her performance, but that’s not a reason to like her.
Heigl plays Abby Richter, whose occupation happens to be – watch out, Jane Craig! – a TV news producer. Overseeing a Sacramento morning show that’s floundering in the ratings, she’s also trying to find the perfect guy who will fit all the criteria on her checklist: being a “cat person,” enjoying red wine, preferring tap water over bottled, etc.
Enter Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler). The host of a raunchy public-access cable show called The Ugly Truth – in which he gleefully shoots down all romantic fantasies women may have about one-thing-on-their-mind men – Mike is brought in against Abby’s wishes to give her show a spark. But when Abby wants to seduce her new neighbor, a hot doctor (Eric Winter), she grudgingly turns to Mike for advice on what a guy really wants.
Director Robert Luketic has a fundamentally strong sense for how to pace this unambitious brand of comedy, as well as how to cast solid comic performers – like John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines as a sniping husband-and-wife anchor team – for the supporting cast. The film lopes along, waiting for the moment when we start to care about when and how our protagonists will get their “happily ever after.”
That moment, however, never comes. Butler seems hamstrung by his efforts to chew through his Glasgow brogue and approximate an American accent. While the script – by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith – tries to soften him up by giving him a nephew to mentor and a back-story of heartbreak, he’s never particular convincing as a crass misogynist or as a reformed crass misogynist.
And then there’s Heigl, who seemed poised for a breakout in exactly this kind of role after Knocked Up. Yet there’s something fundamentally chilly about the way she comes off in The Ugly Truth. It doesn’t help that when Mike says it “beats the hell out of me” why he loves Abby, it beats the hell out of us, too.
Heigl’s also game enough to tackle what was clearly intended as The Ugly Truth’s big “outrageous” set piece, in which – don’t even bother to ask how – Abby ends up at a business dinner while wearing remote-controlled vibrating underwear, with the remote falling in the hands of an oblivious young boy at a nearby table. It’s impossible for the moment not to evoke When Harry Met Sally’s legendary deli scene, as Abby squeals and contorts her way through an embarrassing presentation to her bosses. But in this case, it’s outrageousness without a human context, just a ridiculous plot contrivance with a risqué punch line.
THE UGLY TRUTH (2) • Directed by Robert Luketic • Starring Katherine Heigl, Gerard Butler, Eric Winter • Rated R • 101 mins • At Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, and Northridge Cinemas.