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Battle of the Sexes
on July 18, 2009
"The Ugly Truth" represents something I never thought I'd see: A romantic comedy that both women and men will appreciate. Granted, it probably won't be for the same reasons. Women will like it because underneath it all, it's a fairly typical romantic comedy, the story of Girl Hates Boy, Boy Hates Girl, Boy and Girl Fall in Love Anyway. Men will like it because one of the main characters expresses much of what they think and feel on a daily basis. Everyone will like it because the story is engaging and the characters are not mere cardboard caricatures. You can actually invest in them, and you're able to care about what's going on. What could easily have been a routine date night movie is instead a surprisingly good movie that need not wait until date night. It's also genuinely funny--a bit raunchy, yes, but funny just the same.
Much of the film's success is due to the wonderful onscreen chemistry between Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler. They continuously make us laugh, yet the comedy is not so broad that you can't believe them in their roles. They make a point of interacting with one another, not as comic relief but as real people. Heigl plays Abby Richter, the romantically challenged, neurotic, controlling producer of a failing Sacramento morning talk show. Butler plays Mike Chadaway, the chauvinistic host of a public access relationship program called "The Ugly Truth." He's unapologetically tell-it-like-it-is in matters of men and women. There's no such thing, he claims, as a sensitive, nurturing man who wants to connect at an emotional level. Men just want sex, plain and simple. And they only want it with attractive women.
Abby, who thinks Mike's rhetoric is appalling, is horrified when she learns that he has been hired to her station in an effort to boost ratings. They clash at every turn ... until he learns that she's interested in dating her next door neighbor--an orthopedic surgeon named Colin (Eric Winter) who just happens to be incredibly handsome. Sensing she's doing everything wrong to initiate a relationship, Mike offers to help Abby by having her test his relationships theories on Colin. She reluctantly agrees, and sure enough, Mike's methods work wonders. She dresses more provocatively. She learns to stop being critical and avoid discussing her personal problems. She learns to be the embodiment of both the saint and the sinner, or as Mike puts it, "The librarian and the stripper."
And that's when things start to get more complex. Abby is succeeding with Colin, but only at the expense of not being herself. On the other hand, could anyone love her as herself? She is, after all, known for bringing background checks and printed topics of conversation to blind dates. As for Mike, he has very definite reasons for believing that loving relationships are a sham. They're gradually revealed not only through carefully structured scenes, but also through Butler, who shows he can find the right balance between smug and sensitive. We see that Mike is the closest thing his young nephew has for a father, and even though he playfully gives the boy relationship advice, he's also quick to remind him that kids should never, ever watch his show.
Heigl also manages a balancing act with her performance, specifically between strength and vulnerability. Abby overachieves at work to compensate for a lack of a love life, which initially seems funny but steadily grows desperate. For reasons she doesn't care to admit to, she's falling in love with Mike, and he too is falling in love with her. But what about Colin? Is he with Abby only because of the façade Mike told her to put up? There's a scene between her and Colin late in the film that directly addresses this issue, and to my delight, it's handled in a way that avoids just about everything that would happen in the average romantic comedy. There are no shouting matches. There are no flying fists. There are no confrontations. There's only a quiet moment of realization that the truth is indeed ugly.
Scenes like these are wonderfully juxtaposed with moments of well written comedy. There are some very amusing moments between Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins as unhappily married news anchors who share the same desk and time slot. The film's single funniest scene takes place in a restaurant and involves Abby, an extremely stimulating pair of underwear, and a control device that ends up in the wrong hands.
I can say with complete honesty (and some embarrassment) that I wasn't expecting such a strong film. I certainly wasn't expecting a strong film belonging to this particular genre. What floors me is that two of the three writers of this film are Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. There are the same two that brought us "The House Bunny," one of the worst films of 2008. They certainly got it right this time around. "The Ugly Truth" is one of the best romantic comedies I've seen in a long time, a delightful and absorbing tale about the fronts people display. It's funny without lowering itself to the level of cheap gags, and this is in spite of the film's well-deserved R rating. Heigl and Butler convincingly pull off a romance, no small feat given the contrived nature of these kinds of films. At last, a date movie both the man and the woman can enjoy.