In the lushly produced but dispiriting new comedy The Ugly Truth, Katherine Heigl stars as Abby Richter, a successful but hopelessly uptight TV producer who is also perpetually single. Ever efficient, Abby does background checks on the men she meets, and takes along on the first date a ten-point checklist of the qualities that make for the perfect guy (one: a man who orders tap water with dinner, not overpriced bottled water). Second dates rarely come Abby's way, but she keeps trying because she knows that "he's out there somewhere," a line one suspects Heigl is contractually obligated to utter in every film she makes.
Enter Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a big, boorish lunk of a hunk, whose cable-access show, The Ugly Truth, advises men and women to seek "lust, not love." Abby finds his philosophy infuriating, only to discover that her boss has hired Mike to do a daily advice spot on the Sacramento morning show she produces. In the film's sharpest comic scene, well played by Butler, Mike makes his debut by giving on-air sex advice to the morning show's feuding husband-and-wife anchors (scene-stealers Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins). Abby is mortified, but eventually she and Mike make a pact: He'll quit the show if his love advice fails to help Abby score the heart of her gorgeous doctor neighbor (Eric Winter).
Directed by Robert Luketic and written by Nicole Eastman, with a credited re-write attributed to the team of Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (who together wrote Luketic's hit first film, Legally Blonde), The Ugly Truth is at its best when Abby is at work. In gleefully long camera takes, Luketic and cinematographer Russell Carpenter (Titanic) glide around a modern TV studio, which, despite the shiny high-tech equipment, can't help but make one think of WJM, the quirky Minneapolis TV station where Mary Richards toiled in The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like Mary, Abby is smart, quick-witted and beloved by her co-workers, although it must be said that, unlike Mary's patented brand, Heigl's version of "spunk" often comes across as petulance. There's also something creepily infantile about Abby, a quality vividly on display when her co-workers find her curled up on the floor in a fetal position after having been usurped by her corporate bosses. Mary Richards would have slapped her in the face.
But, maybe, like Abby, we're over-thinking things. The Ugly Truth is, after all, just another factory-authorized romantic comedy, soon to be digested and forgotten, even as its target demographic prepares for the next bad-but-must-be-seen Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey flick. Heigl and Butler have genuine chemistry, and the writers have given the duo some bitchy, snappy dialogue. They probably had in mind such workplace comedies as Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, but in this day and age, witty banter and stars with chemistry aren't enough to catch an audience's attention. Or at least that's what conventional wisdom tells the green-lighters. And so it is that Mike talks raunchily about what women really want (hard, rough and often) while also helping Abby discover the joys of saying dirty words in public places — not to mention the pleasures to be found in wearing a very special undergarment.
Speaking of: If you do a Google search for "vibrating bikini underwear for women," all manner of adult sex-accessory sites will appear, each offering remote-control-operated panties, thongs and g-strings. In the coming months, the makers of such specialty items may notice an uptick in sales as movie-goers experience the sure-to-be-talked-about scene in which Abby, while wearing Mike's dainty gift to a business dinner, accidentally vibrates herself to orgasm. Loudly. Intended, surely, as an homage to Meg Ryan's famous When Harry Met Sally... lesson in how to fake the big one, the sight of Heigl contorting in public ecstasy is either hysterical or horrifying, depending on your particular sensibilities. (For me: horrifying.) Regardless, the scene proves again that in Hollywood, if not America itself, there are no new ideas — just better technology.