The best part of “The Ugly Truth,” which opens this Friday, July 24, is that its title pretty much writes the review for you.
A romantic comedy so bland and paint-by-numbers that it’s astounding it even got made (and more astounding that Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler chose it), it begins by following Abby, an idealistic, micro-managing TV news producer in Sacramento. When her news show begins failing, her station manager hires Mike, the obnoxious-yet-charming, chauvinistic-yet-honest host of “The Ugly Truth,” a relationship and dating advice show on the local cable-access channel.
Abby and Mike could not be more diametrically opposed; Abby, a “strong independent woman,” approaches dating by having a literal checklist of things she needs in a man… and if he doesn’t meet all ten, the date’s over. Mike is hedonistic; he loves chicks in bikinis, jello-wrestling, one night stands, you name it. Although these two characters despise each other, they’re forced to work together because Abby’s news show needs the higher ratings Mike’s schtick is earning.
But when Abby develops a crush on Colin (Eric Winter), her cute and perfect next-door neighbor, she needs Mike’s blunt and insightful advice to snag him. Thus, Mike becomes a kind of Cyrano to Abby’s Christian, guiding her through a series of dating set pieces: coaching her on her first date via a hidden ear-bud… helping her through a business dinner when her vibrating panties accidentally begin giving her a series of massive orgasms… etc.
Over the course of helping Abby woo Colin, Mike falls in love with her himself. I won’t bother telling you the ending, not because there’s anything remotely unpredictable in it, but because you already know where it’s going.
Now, there’s plenty of stuff wrong with “The Ugly Truth,” but to me, there’s one weakness that outshines them all. One weakness that, I believe, is the key to ANY good romantic comedy. And if done well, any other flaw in the movie can be forgiven. And that weakness is…
YOU NEVER LONG FOR THESE TWO PEOPLE TO BE TOGETHER.
And if the audience isn’t DYING for the two main characters of a romantic comedy to be together—think “When Harry Met Sally” or “Annie Hall”—almost nothing else in the story matters.
Having said that, it’d be easy to blame this problem on the actors’ lack of chemistry, but I think the problems start not with the performers, but in the script.
There are 2 reasons why the script itself never makes us want Abby and Mike to get together…
1) We don’t see how they need each other. Or, rather, we see how Abby needs Mike—he teaches her how to loosen up, be sexy and flirty, and enjoy life—but we never see why Mike needs Abby. Sure, Katherine Heigl is pretty… but by the end of the movie, even Mike’s chauvinistic character has learned that love isn’t about looks… yet we don’t see him learn what the hell it IS about! Abby doesn’t teach him to do anything… she barely improves his show… she does NOTHING for him.
All the great romantic comedy couples work like a yin and yang; they complement each other’s strength’s and weaknesses. Annie grounds Alvy and helps him grow up; Alvy helps Annie break out of her shell, become more confident and able to live a life.
But that doesn’t happen in “The Ugly Truth.” It’s a one-sided relationship; and when we can’t see what one of the characters gets from the other, emotionally, it makes it very tough for us to root for them being together.
2) The story, especially in its supposedly comic set pieces, doesn’t explore the Abby-Mike relationship, so we never feel like their relationship is being progressed. Or rather, since the main plot points—and main comedy points—aren’t illuminating or exploring Abby and Mike, we never get the fun of seeing them spar, butt heads, reach new levels of understanding and connection, etc.
The first set piece involves Abby on a date with Colin at a baseball game. Mike, a few rows away, is feeding her lines through a hidden headset in her ear. Aside from the fact that nothing Mike says is particularly unique or helpful, the whole scene feels overly-familiar, trite, and painfully uninspired. Like when a girl accidentally spills on Mike’s jeans and Mike says, “What the fuck,” so Abby repeats “What the fuck,” and Colin wonders who she’s talking to. So Mike says, “I wasn’t talking to you,” and Abby says, “I wasn’t talking to you,” and Colin wonders who she’s talking to. (I mean, come on, screenwriters Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah & Kirsten Smith—you guys can do better than this.)
The second set piece involves Abby accidentally wearing a pair of vibrating panties to a business dinner where she’s taken Colin, her date. And when the panties’ remote control falls out of her purse and is picked up by a curious kid at the next table, orgasms ensue. Firstly, the whole scenes a poor, sad man’s version of Meg Ryan’s orgasm scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” especially when another female diner watches Abby’s orgasm and says, “What in the ceviche?”
But more importantly—the scene does NOTHING to further the Abby-Mike relationship. The scene worked in “When Harry Met Sally” because the two of them were alone at a table, discussing women’s ability to fool men… and Sally’s performance not only proved her point, but it put Harry on the spot. So it illuminated their different belief systems—AND showed how far Sally would go simply to prove Harry wrong.
Yet the similar scene in “The Ugly Truth” lacks all the subtle character/relationship understanding of “Harry & Sally” and is nothing more than a soulless scene about a women having an orgasm in public.
So the lessons to take away from this, romantic comedy screenwriters:
1) Make sure your romantic comedy characters each need—and receive—something from each other. Actors’ chemistry is not enough; each character must, on the page—and this is gonna be a poor choice of words, but I’m gonna use it anyway—fill very specific holes in the other. (EMOTIONAL HOLES! Get your head out of the gutter.)
2) Make sure your major scenes and set pieces are somehow exploring and deepening the relationship between your two leads. This doesn’t mean they have to be visibly and obviously falling in love or showing affection—they can certainly be conflicting… and fall in love later—but it does mean we should be seeing new aspects of their relationship.
In fact, “The Ugly Truth” ends with an exchange of dialogue that beautifully illustrates all it’s greatest weaknesses…
ABBY: You’re in love with me? Why?
MIKE: Beats the hell out of me.