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MOVIE REVIEW

The Ugly Truth

‘Ugly Truth’ traps Heigl in another predictable chick flick

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / July 24, 2009

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Like most women in movies right now, Katherine Heigl was born in the wrong decade. She has the misfortune to work in a time when her business values women either as something else for the camera to do (apparently Megan Fox is all the transformer certain men need) or as a device to confuse gaydars. Sixty years ago, she might have been a biggish deal in minor comedies, the way she is now. But she might also have had taller, more charismatic men to star with and better things to be and represent than she does at the start of the 21st century, where she’s stuck playing professionally capable, socially retarded women.

Heigl plies her trade in so-called chick flicks, the Lean Cuisine of romantic comedy, and her latest contribution, “The Ugly Truth’’ - or, as I fondly came to think of it, the Baja-style chicken quesadilla (only five Weight Watchers points!) - casts her as an undersexed television news producer named Abby Richter. This is a promotion from being an aspiring TV personality (“Knocked Up’’) and a smitten eco-magazine drone (“27 Dresses’’).

Why is Abby undersexed? Not simply because she’s overworked (she loves her job), but because she’s so good at what she does that she does it during dates. For one rendezvous with Kevin Connolly, of “Entourage,’’ she arrives armed with a background check, talking points, and a checklist of desired personality traits: likes red wine and classical music, has a symmetrical face, never gets up first on a Sunday morning (whatever that means).

This is not a woman. This is a walking Facebook profile.

Thank goodness her Sacramento morning show has just brought in Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a barking chauvinist, to lift the ratings and, consequently, educate Abby on how to conduct herself with the boringly handsome surgeon neighbor (Eric Winter) she’s just started seeing. She produces Mike’s segments. He produces her dates. Even though there’s no reason for Abby, with her principles and integrity, to like this (admittedly appealing) lout, little time is wasted foreshadowing the love Jacuzzi that awaits them.

The people responsible for “The Ugly Truth’’ - director Robert Luketic and screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, sharing a credit with Nicole Eastman - were also responsible for “Legally Blonde.’’ That must have been a once-in-a-lifetime thing since this new movie is only half as entertaining as the other one. Abby is not a terribly surprising or dynamic character. She’s a cliché. In “Legally Blonde,’’ Elle Woods’s dumbness was a neat rubber toy - pull on it, and it snaps. Abby’s intelligence is like stale Play-Doh. No one’s building a Broadway musical around that. Her sense of fun is doused with professionalism.

In name only, “The Ugly Truth’’ echoes Leo McCarey’s exuberantly well-oiled 1937 screwball comedy “The Awful Truth,’’ with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, as a divorcing couple who are still in love despite themselves. (Although Eric Winter is as perfect a hapless stooge as Ralph Bellamy in McCarey’s movie.)

Otherwise, “The Ugly Truth’’ draws from a different well. Many women in romantic comedies in the last few years have been modeled on either Liz Lemon from NBC’s “30 Rock,’’ Sally Albright from “When Harry Met Sally,’’ or Jane Craig in “Broadcast News,’’ three of the most important female TV or movie comedy characters in the last two-and-a-half decades.

Abby has a combination of their professional seriousness and their high-strung temperament. But those women are funny, true, and humanly neurotic. The screenwriters picked over their obvious traits (Liz’s unlimited capacity for humiliation, Sally’s finicky ways, Jane’s prickly righteousness) without attaching anything emotional to them. It’s hard to see any of those women climbing a tree to fetch a cat only to fall out of it and into a man’s crotch. Abby does that.

The movie has embarrassingly limited ideas about both the sexes and sex. Like Sandra Bullock’s career woman in “The Proposal,’’ Abby appears to have never heard of intercourse, much less experienced it.

“The Ugly Truth’’ does stand admirably by its R rating. All the best dialogue is unprintable (so is most of the worst), and a pair of vibrating panties affords Abby the opportunity to loosen up in a manner that would put a smile on Sally Albright’s face.

Heigl and Butler make more sense together than most of their peers. He has creases in his face and a swashbuckling, unapologetic manliness that suits romantic comedies, since they’re about taming wild impulses. It’s fun watching the genre’s corset squeeze in on him.

And yet it’s unfair that Heigl is laced up from the start. Her most believable moments come when she’s in complete control over her seductive powers. That happens twice, and on both occasions, the joke is that she’s faking it. American movies continue to damn the control freak for not being a super freak, and the super freak for having no control. I’ll marry the filmmaker who gives us a complete woman who splits the difference.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE UGLY TRUTH Directed by: Robert Luketic

Written by: Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith, and Nicole Eastman

Starring: Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated: R (sexual content and language)

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