To some extent we pay good money to not be surprised in a romantic comedy. Writers can come up with new ways to meet cute all they like, but the goods of the romantic comedy remain the same-- the bickering, the furtive glances, the moment of revelation, the final clinch. And The Ugly Truth works in every single one of those staples, plus a few set pieces nicked from older classics-- yes, it's apparently still OK to rip off When Harry Met Sally.
But The Ugly Truth forgets that, even as audiences want to be coddled with the familiar, they want to at least pretend they're seeing something fresh. Instead the movie is entirely concerned with staying inside the lines, making sure the eternally single girl lives with a cat and the dream date has perfect white teeth, and the familiarity soon grows tiresome, not comforting. It's not tremendously bad, but it's entirely unoriginal, which is almost worse.
Even though she burned some bridges when she complained about playing an uptight control freak in Knocked Up, Katherine Heigl is right back at it as Abby, a TV morning show producer so unrealistically obsessive that she brings a list of conversation topics on a date. Abby is unbearably strident and loud even before she's paired against Mike (Gerard Butler), a laconic shock jock recruited to boost her show's ratings. Mike's segment titled "The Ugly Truth" offers revelations along the lines of "Men like watching women wrestle in Jello" and "Everyone wishes they were having more sex," while Abby runs around claiming that real men enjoy classical music and cats, despite the fact that she's never met one.
Of course, these two must fall in love around the 90-minute mark, but first Abby must fruitlessly woo her doctor neighbor (Eric Winter) as Mike coaches her on dating skills like some kind of buff Cyrano de Bergerac. The courtship turns into an increasingly implausible series of comic set pieces-- if you think spilling soda on the guy at a baseball game is funny, wait 'til she suffers through dinner wearing vibrating panties! And, of course, Mike falls for Abby for some reason during all this, leading to a dance floor clinch and an awkward elevator makeout, the only moment of the film featuring any kind of sexual tension.
It's all made more unbearable by Robert Luketic's sitcommy direction, which provides every comedic moment with a musical beat and a pause for laughs. The Ugly Truth squanders its R-rating, throwing in an F-bomb or two but largely ignoring the genuinely ugly truth that make real life relationships hilarious. A few funny lines work their way in there, and from time to time Heigl and Butler settle into a rapport that helps you forget how abhorrent their characters are. But when it comes time for these people to fall in love, connecting over a shared affection for tap water and literally nothing else, the whole charade falls apart. At least these two morons deserve each other.
Supporting characters littering the side of the frame include Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins as bickering married co-anchors, and Bree Turner as the best friend, overacting so much that even Heigl looks natural by comparison. As the story wraps up and everyone gathers round to watch Mike and Abby come together at last, it's disturbing to realize that no one in this movie has actually learned anything. Abby knows to be herself, which is a whiny control freak, and Mike has proven that all his dating theories, which treat women as easy-manipulated magpies, are correct. That's the ugly truth this movie is selling, and ugliest part is that audiences will probably buy it anyway.