Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart dump their art-house hang-ups to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they see through (and, briefly, fall for) the lies peddled in Robert Luketic’s The Ugly Truth.
So, Ben, Katherine Heigl, star of The Ugly Truth, famously made a bit of a stink after she made Knocked Up, when she publicly accused that film of sexism. Good for her, I guess? But she loses any accrued feminist credibility when she makes tommyrot like this. After spending the whole movie trying to please her man, a bland to the point of irritating doctor (Days of Our Lives vet Eric Winter), by dressing sexily and playing coy, coquettish games, her character learns a lesson in the end to Be Herself. OK, I guess that’s empowering, but not only does it seem half-hearted, her True Self is like a caricature of The Shrew; in the movie she’s repeatedly defined as a “control freak,” which is just a euphemism for a bitch. Criticizing your boyfriend because he brought you un-chilled champagne doesn’t indicate a need to be in charge of the situation. It’s just ill mannered.
The Ugly Truth struck me as the first rom-com of the 30 Rock era: Heigl plays a Liz Lemon type here, not only because she works in TV (as the producer of a local Sacramento news program), but because she’s a career-driven professional, married to her job, which requires her to mother a bunch of kooks. (The best of which are the married news-anchor couple played by Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins.) And her ultimate love interest, played by Gerard Butler, takes the Baldwin role: he takes over her show with a segment for which the film is named, in which he rants about the battle of the sexes, his insights characterized by predictable machismo, to which of course Heigl takes predictable offense. Just like Liz and Jack! Kind of. He says there’s no such thing as love, only lust; she says romantic wonderful men are out there: men who like wine, Gatsby, classicals and flossing. (Butler derides this type as gay at least once, which made me, the Beethoven-loving, Fitzgerald-reading wino, feel gay.) He argues men would rather see women-in-underpants wrestle in Jell-O than watch a couple have a candlelight dinner. I don’t get what that proves.
But I don’t really want to compare the movie to 30 Rock because it’s nowhere near the level of that slapstick sitcom that you should all be watching. (The film is a bit full of itself anyway, at one point comparing its trite on-screen hi-jinx to an “Andy Kaufman sort of thing”.) Its sense of humor is if anything sophomoric: Butler replaces the word “cat” with “pussy” for a naughty double entendre; he’ll later do something similar with the word “coming”. Oh, and the remote control vibrator set piece was stale when it appeared in Shortbus; now it’s begun to molder. So, Ben, what were your least favorite aspects of The Ugly Truth? Or did the Hangover-lover in you actually latch on to something?
How did you know? Did the beaming smile I wore for hours after our screening betray the guilty pleasure that I took from the second half of this film? (It’s true, and ugly.) Maybe it was the mid-movie intermission — you know, when everything stopped while Heigl and Winter drove through a BMW commercial into a J. Crew catalog — but at some point The Ugly Truth’s weird balancing act between rom-com, bromance and gross-out comedy conventions caught me off guard. I guess that, much like Heigl’s character, I was so prepared to have to weather a shitstorm of misogynist filth that a few half-hearted (but earnest) gestures towards sexual equality were enough to get me in bed. For instance, I preferred the camaraderie between Heigl and Butler — when the latter was helping the former get with Winter — to their eventual, inevitable (spoilers!) hook-up. I guess that final switcheroo is what kept this film from achieving the kind of genre-defying depths reached in My Best Friend’s Wedding.
I went into The Ugly Truth expecting a sorta-feminist response to the parodic (and, I imagine, somewhat accurate) broadcasting industry sexism lampooned in Will Ferrell’s Anchorman, and in that respect I think it works. Whether we’re looking at Heigl as TV executive within the movie or Heigl as executive producer of the movie, this film is about the compromises a woman has to make to succeed under patriarchy. And though you’re right that this occasionally has her filling the meager roles reserved for women in The Hangover — Butler tells her that to get Winter she has to be simultaneously cold and a boiling sexual deviant — ultimately that role-play fails. There’s also an epic struggle between fantasy and realism in Heigl’s choice between Winter and Butler, respectively. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which closes The L’s Summerscreen outdoor movie series, huzzah!), The Ugly Truth ends with the couple’s acceptance that romance is hard, messy and, often too short (that’s what she said!).
Of course, it’s true that The Ugly Truth features many of the regressive sexual morals rom-coms are notorious for peddling. Screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (aided here by newcomer Nicole Eastman) are vets of the genre, having collaborated previously on Legally Blonde (also directed by Robert Luketic), She’s the Man, The House Bunny and the new 10 Things I Hate About You TV show. I especially couldn’t stand the film’s message that sexuality just happens to women, and that without a man (or boy, like the kid who plays with the remote to Heigl’s vibrating undies) they’d be helpless to control it, not to mention enjoy it. The final scene’s (possibly fake) orgasm seemed like an attempt to acknowledge that problematic portrayal of female sexuality, but, like Butler, I wasn’t buy it. What sex scene did you find most egregiously misogynist?
Were there any sex scenes besides the one at the end? That was a problem for me: this totally phony idea that a man and a woman (Winter and Heigl) in a months-long courtship wouldn’t consummate that budding relationship; it seemed a way to keep Heigl Pure for Butler. And that’s pretty misogynist, right? Because we know he slept with the Jell-O twin “who could read”.
But enough with the sexual politics; let’s talk about your favorite subject, Ben: class. Heigl’s superior complains that the show needs ratings because he’s putting two kids through college (and a son through beauty school — hardy har har, he’s gay), but then no one else in the film has any money troubles: they eat at fancy restaurants, party at posh clubs, and stay in luxury hotel suites. How much trouble can the show be in?
Last year, Heigl got in trouble for her big mouth (again!) when she said she didn’t put her name in for Emmy consideration (for her work on Gray’s Anatomy) because she wasn’t given strong enough material to justify it. Many, including My Name is Earl co-star Ethan Suplee, took it as a knock at the writers, a star beating up on her subordinates. Likewise, her character in the The Ugly Truth is so narcissistic that she has no consideration for any of the underlings around her: pay attention to the part of the frame she’s not in and you’ll see a progression of wounded blue-collar workers: there’s the super-pissed-off flower delivery guy forced to hold a heavy bouquet while she reads the card and then jumps up and down like a high school cheerleader; the hot air balloon pilot drinking sadly after Heigl told him to shut up. She arrives at a club, orders a drink, and then leaves before it comes; though her exit is off-screen, I bet she didn’t even tip the waitress, whose time and energy she wasted. And then when she and Butler finally hook up, it’s in open elevator doors. Other people need to use the elevator too, you know! They were like a tourist family who stop in the middle of a sidewalk, with a baby carriage, to check a map. These characters were just so obsessed with themselves and their own tiny problems; they’re as irresponsible as their fluffy and pointless television show. There was nothing redeeming about anything here, Ben, just a portrait of American selfishness, run amok, played for laughs. What’s so funny, huh?
I completely agree that The Ugly Truth looks really ugly if you’re talking about how it depicts class (universal suburban comfort awaits in Sacramento) or race (there are no Latinos in Sacramento, and only one African American employee at the TV station). Especially in a state whose deficit is around $26 billion and whose governor was recently seen brandishing a machete-sized knife on Twitter, the idea of setting The Ugly Truth against some sunny, fantasy (badly blue screened) version of a city and state that are actually totally screwed is practically criminal.
All that being said: come on, Henry, how’s a girl supposed to get the man of her dreams if she has to worry about the price of said dreams? There’s a reason Heigl’s character is an obsessive-compulsive control freak: she’s had to struggle and succeed in a male-dominated industry under all the attendant scrutiny of being an outsider in a boys’ club. Meanwhile, this film has a working-class hero, and it’s Butler. He doesn’t own a home (presumably lost to foreclosure), but lives in his sister’s guest house so that he can be a father figure for his nephew — not unlike Will Smith in that other California class mashup The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, living in the pool house and teaching Carlton about manhood. He also turns down a lucrative offer from another network to host a show in San Francisco (thereby averting certain death) because he doesn’t want to be too far from said nephew. Butler is cast as the lumpen schmo alongside the absurdly (and ultimately excessively) perfect luxury goods consumer Winter.
Basically, Butler plays a modern-day Cryano de Bergerac, like Steve Martin, eloquently spouting the ugly truth no matter how badly we don’t want to hear it. He’s short, chubby, scruffy, and looks better in jeans and a T-shirt than in a suit. Butler enjoys the more base, proletarian pleasures in life (like women in bikinis wrestling in Jell-O), and surely wouldn’t know what to do with the caviar that Winter serves Heigl during their BMW-sponsored road trip — which, incidentally, she spits out because she “can’t stand being fed like a baby.” She’s a strong and successful executive, damn it, and she won’t be treated like anything less, even if it means giving up her dreams of dating a dreamy hunk of PhD’d man-meat. No, Henry, I’m starting to think that the only ugly truth here is that if it were up to you, Heigl would spend the whole movie wearing a bikini and wrestling in a tub of caviar.
(photo credit: © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.)