Confessions of a Shopaholic, Bride Wars, He's Just Not That Into You, and now this. It seems that Hollywood's misogynistic rom-com bandwagon just keeps on rolling on. In any decade, the existence of those aforementioned stinkers would point to an embarrassing lapse in judgement for a movie culture ostensibly concerned with exploring the manifold human experiences of its people, irrespective of their gender. But that all those films, now including The Ugly Truth, were all released in the one year suggests that mainstream Hollywood, when it comes to the depiction of modern women, has utterly lost the plot.
The Ugly Truth, it must be noted, was written and produced by women. It is directed by Robert Luketic, the Australian filmmaker who had a hit with Legally Blonde, but soon plummeted into low-grade pabulum such as Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and Monster-in-Law. And its high-concept kernel is the Pygmalion-like transformation of a neurotic shrewish TV producer called Abby (Katherine Heigl) into a seductive man-magnet - a transformation that is entirely supervised by a boorish male-chauvinist guru called Mike (Gerard Butler).
Of course, Abby and Mike loathe each other on sight. Abby, we quickly discover, is a producer on a Sacramento morning TV show. She is blessed with a fabulous apartment, the smart attire of a media power player, and the respect of her colleagues and friends. She is, unfortunately, too obsessive and too controlling to maintain healthy relationships with men. In one early scene she ruins a first date by revealing that she has ordered professional background checks on her prospective paramour. It's a throwaway moment, but it lets you know that the humour is going to be entirely at Abby's expense - this will allow Heigl to stretch her comic talents (established in the megahit Knocked Up), but it too often seems sadistic and mean-spirited.
Abby, for instance, will fall from a tree while spying on her hunky neighbour Colin (Eric Winter) in his bathrobe - although Abby will hang upside-down from the tree first, thereby revealing her underwear to the world, in one of the film's many leering touches. This and other scenes allow Heigl just enough comedic rope to hang herself. Along the way, Abby is introduced to Mike, the presenter of the TV show Ugly Truth, in which he tells the people of Sacramento the hard facts of gender politics - "Women, if you want to get a man, get a StairMaster!" is as deep as it goes. The joke here is that Mike is boorish and crude and his advice is hysterically old-fashioned and pre-new man. And yet the film, despite claims to the contrary (it gives Mike a softer side and a playful relationship with his nephew), slowly validates Mike's world view. For instance, he becomes Abby's unofficial life coach (she agrees because she is desperate to capture Colin). He teaches her to swap her old wardrobe for something more "accessible". He teaches her how to flirt - "You must be both the librarian and the stripper," he says to her in another line where the giggle is instantly undercut by the cringeworthy reality on screen (Heigl's outfits become skimpier by the minute).
The plot, whatever little there is, eventually decrees that Abby must fall not for Colin, but for Mike. Which is hardly a surprise, considering that Colin is given no other character trait than tight abs, and played by a B-list supporting actor, while Mike is played by the rising star Butler and given the showiest lines. In the process, Abby learns that all the things she once valued - order, control, her sensible clothes and a well-maintained apartment - mean nothing when compared to hooking a big lunky alpha male hero like Mike. Their final scenes together are supposedly filmed in a hot-air balloon but reveal a level of technical ineptitude that is gobsmacking for a mainstream studio production (a child, a laptop and a green screen would have done better). But its lacklustre execution ultimately hints that the heart here is not in the happy ending, but in the previous 90 minutes of humiliation.