Friday, July 24, 2009

The Ugly Truth: Pretty amusing

The Ugly Truth (2009) • View trailer for The Ugly Truth
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for sexual candor and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.09
Buy DVD: The Ugly Truth• Buy Blu-Ray: The Ugly Truth [Blu-ray]

Although viewers will be 15 minutes ahead of its predictable plot at all times, The Ugly Truth unapologetically recycles overly familiar material into a crowd-pleasing date flick.

Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler have much to do with this film's pleasures; they bite enthusiastically into the sharp-tongued, often amusingly coarse dialogue as mildly erotic sparks fly between them. Chemistry is everything in a film of this nature, and if Heigl and Butler don't quite channel the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, it's not for lack of effort.
The cheerfully vulgar and chauvinistic Mike (Gerard Butler) is everything Abby
(Katherine Heigl) hates in a man, and she's everything he finds predictably
uptight in a woman. Naturally, they wind up working together; just as
naturally, romantic sparks aren't far behind.

Not that this patchwork script  credited to Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, and feeling as if it has been further "sweetened" by several additional scribes  can lay claim to the rat-a-tat screwball genius of classic 1940s Hollywood romantic comedies. This is derivative material writ large, with a mash-up of The Odd Couple and Cyrano de Bergerac supplemented by 21st century pokes at the Mars/Venus male/female divide.

Even so, Heigl and Butler are quite engaging as (respectively) the Felix and Oscar in this ribald battle of the sexes. Director Robert Luketic has a much easier time whenever his two stars are sniping at each other, and his film noticeably drags when one or the other is absent.

Heigl stars as Abby Richter, the spit-and-polish producer of A.M. Sacramento, a morning talk show struggling for dwindling ratings in the network television market. Abby is old-school; she still believes that viewers are intelligent, and that they want actual news and provocative commentary, Walter Cronkite-style, as opposed to loud-mouthed infotainment delivered in bite-size segments with words of no more than one syllable.

She's something of a control freak as well, but she gets the job done; even her boss acknowledges that. But the product simply isn't getting the necessary ratings, and something needs to spice up the mix.

Off the job, Abby maintains her uptight persona with a succession of failed dates: No surprise, since she micro-manages a restaurant menu order and even brings along pages of "talking points" designed to facilitate a conversation. One wonders how her one-time-only companions manage to last beyond the pre-dinner cocktail.

Elsewhere, on an obscure local cable channel, Mike Chadway (Butler) has been making waves as the outrageously racy and gleefully chauvinistic host of The Ugly Truth, a late-night show that purports to explain the real reasons behind the eternal gender divide.

Abby catches his act one evening and couldn't be more horrified: Mike is a textbook example of everything she hates about shock-jock narcissism masquerading as "new journalism."

On top of which, the guy is incredibly offensive. (It's a good thing, I guess, that this film is written by women.)

Naturally, then, Mike gets hired by Abby's boss, as a Hail Mary play designed to boost ratings; the ploy succeeds. As the producer of A.M. Sacramento, Abby technically remains in charge ... but since Mike becomes an overnight star, he's well aware of being able to call the shots.

After Mike all but sabotages a staff meeting, Abby wonders aloud if everybody else in the room has forgotten their previous sexual harassment seminars (a line that I suspect will resonate most with people who've had to suffer through those insultingly condescending wastes of time).

She has a point. As viewers, we're forced to decide whether this display of post-feminist sexism is somehow more palatable because Mike cheerfully admits that all men are simplistic pigs with one thought on their minds.

He may be hard on women, but he's harder on himself: Is this progress in the gender wars?

In truth, after our initial eye-blinking astonishment at what comes out of Mike's mouth  in other words, after growing accustomed to his shtick  we relax and feel less guilty about laughing. Hell, the lines are funny, even if many of them are offensive ... and Mike gets away with them for the simple reason that Butler is so charming during their delivery.

Good thing, too, because the plot becomes increasingly contrived. It's reasonable to accept that the pragmatic Abby would make the most of a situation she finds repulsive, if only to save her show and  by extension  her job. The decision to let Mike stage-manage her personal life, on the other hand, can't help raising eyebrows.

Well, go with it. The motivations may not be explained sufficiently  actually, we get no back-story at all on Abby, and very little on Mike  but the subsequent skirmishes are worth the price of admission. Bringing Up Baby didn't make a helluva lot of sense either, but people didn't care; they bought tickets to see Hepburn and Grant.

And, so, the subsequent sorta-kinda riff on Pygmalion employs plenty of vulgar dialogue to spice up its familiar notes: Mike dictates how Abby should transform her meet-cute encounter with a hunky neighbor, Colin (Eric Winter, rather bland), into a relationship; Mike buys Abby new clothes, to "sex up" her appearance. The pleasant surprise  for us, and for Mike  is that Abby can be just as crass; Heigl's not adverse to indulging in an occasional potty-mouthed riposte.

She shrewdly walks the fine line, though: Heigl makes Abby just naughty enough to be seductively appealing, without crossing into unwholesome sluttiness.

Bree Turner makes a strong impression as Joy, Abby's assistant; Turner deftly expands what could have been a one-note part, and scores a few memorable laughs in the process (notably when Joy first meets Colin).

Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins are less successful as Georgia and Larry, the unhappily married, perpetually competitive co-anchors of A.M. Sacramento. Their mutual dislike and sudden thawing never quite catches fire, mostly because Hines and Higgins are stiff as boards, and have absolutely none of the natural chemistry that Heigl and Butler share so effortlessly.

Mike's rough edges are given token smoothing by the amiable relationship he has with his young nephew, and one detects some much-needed sensitivity when Mike gives the boy some sensible dating tips. Naturally, Abby overhears one of these exchanges, leading to the obligatory maybe-he-isn't-a-total-jerk flick of her eyebrows.

The Sacramento locale, established with some quick shots of the Tower Bridge and overhead views of Old Sacramento and the Capitol, garnered some shout-outs from locals attending Wednesday's preview screening. Nothing else is made of the setting; Abby's apartment and Mike's home could be anywhere, and the few remaining location shots look like Los Angeles: hardly astonishing, since that's where they were taken.

The A.M. Sacramento stage was built at KCET, L.A.'s public television station, and a baseball sequence was done in Long Beach because, in Luketic's words, "There was no real baseball game in town that we could film."

Phooey. I hope the River Cats sharpen their claws on some tender portion of Luketic's anatomy.

Once this film builds momentum, you likely won't mind the script's improbabilities; Heigl and Butler are too much fun to watch. And while you may not recall much of the scorching dialogue the following day, during water cooler chatter, you'll absolutely remember every moment of Heigl's side-splitting encounter with a pair of black panties.

More than that, I shall not divulge.

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