Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Ugly Truth (2009)

Romantic Comedies, on-balance, are almost never good. They used to be good. They were good in the "golden age" when they were about dizzy, silly women and the exasperated men who wrangled them. They were good after that, too, in the early stages of what would come to be called feminism; when they were about assertive (but maybe not) women and their bewildered (but wily) men. They were good amid the institutional collapse and psycho-sexual chaos of the 70s. They were even good in the working-girl "backlash" atmosphere of the early 80s.

It's the last decade or so when they hit the wall - robbed of anything to say about the battle of the sexes by the crush of political correctness. They became, to the letter, predictable stories about mismatched opposites learning that they were both "wrong" in their approach to life and love and finding happiness only in bland, regimented compromise. Watching two people - however attractive - run in-tandem toward a haze of gray isn't interesting. And when they DID try to have something to say, usually it was of a vaugely self-hating (since, let's face it, these films are made for women) misogynist variety: Stories of overwhelmed career women rescued by a confident (but nonthreateningly-boyish) man enter the scene and declares - as "Family Guy" put it with uncharacteristic insight - "over the next 90 minutes, I'm going to show you how all your problems can be solved by my penis."

With all this as background, I feel comfortable saying that "The Ugly Truth," due to open wide on the 24th of July, is the best "traditional" romantic comedy to come along in a long time. It does almost everything right, it's inventive where it needs to be, and it WORKS. Taken as an example of it's genre, on those merits, it's a total success - a dynamite movie.

The premise you've been seeing in trailers for over a year now: Katherine Heigl is the genre's standard-issue "Type-A" career women; a TV producer (shades of Liz Lemon) who's daytime news program is in ratings trouble and who's love life is nonexistant because she's a control freak. As a ratings fix, her bosses opt to add to the show "300's" Gerard Butler as one Mike Chadway (sp?) the neo-neanderthal host of a vulgar (but massively popular) "guy's perspective" relationship advice cable show. She hates him, but he's a born TV star, they clash, etc. You get the idea. Being evidently just well-read enough to be aware of Cyrano DeBergerac, he makes her a deal: He'll prove that following his "how to get any guy" advice can land her the handsome doctor next door of her dreams... or he'll quit. Of course, if they should become friendly or close during the tutelage and he then has to hand her off to the other guy... yeah. Like I said, it's "Cyrano" again with one of the pieces swapped. Think you know who ends up with who? Yeah, you're right. Fuck a spoiler warning, honestly.

Why does this work? First, because it's funny. The script is mostly throwing layups, but their going in almost all the time. Uptight girl buying naughty lingerie? Yup, they make it work. Comedy phone-tag? Ditto. Food allergy slapstick? Yup, even that. Solid material, good cast, score. Execution is EVERYTHING. It also helps that Heigl and Butler are perfectly cast as leads in a film trading on the starkest of gender archetypes: With her impossible smile and Barbie body, Heigl is "The Girl" on an almost elemental level; while Butler - sporting permanent stubble, hatchet-job haircut, affecting an American accent that seemingly relies on speaking mostly from one side of his mouth and evidently still carrying most of his "spartan" physique around - is "Man" in the strictest anthropological sense of the word. They fit right in in the arch hyperreality of the genre.

But the main key here is that (okay, fine, SPOILER WARNING) the film doesn't take the "lesson teaching" route in it's resolution. We know they're going to discover that they love eachother, but in almost every other version of this story they discover this only after she's "taught" to lighten up and he's learned to be more civilized. That doesn't happen here!!! Because this is a film that "gets" these two people and doesn't look down on them. Either of them. SHE'S a control freak, but she's also a decent person and her Type-A mannerisms are what make her good at her job - which THIS film sees as a GOOD thing (take notes, "The Proposal.") Meanwhile, there's no "secret" or "psychosis" to Mike... he's an intelligent, observant guy who's arrived at his opinions on relationships logically and through experience and is open about the line between himself and his character ("your supposed to use that on stuck-up 25 year-old girls who think they're hot" he chides a nephew who borrowed some advice from his show "not 14 year-old girls you want to like you.") And the movie DOESN'T think he's all that wrong.

When it's said and done, SHE doesn't learn to "change" and neither does HE... they fall in love because they have chemistry and like eachother for who they are. She likes his gruff sincerity, he likes that she's a "control freak," and off they go. This isn't a "put her in her place" guy-movie or a "make a proper man out of him" chick-flick. It's "I'm who I am, you're who you are, this WORKS." When's the last time you saw that? AND it's really funny, to boot.

I say go see it, but that's me.


Kyle said...

Fascinating. Now, I'm not going to see a romcom on the big screen, but I'll see about catching it when it comes out on DVD. I've enjoyed both Butler and Heigl in the past. Looking forward to it.

Lightbunny said...

It's kinda nice to see a RomCom come along that isn't just emotional pornography.

seraphmaclay said...

The thing you seem to allude to, but never set forth as your realization or your thoughts on the matter, is that romantic comedies don't really work today. Every once in a while, one comes around that has just enough twist that has any draw whatsoever...odd that one of the last three already involved Gerard Butler (and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, too), but I digress. Our culture has simply grown too much that traditional love story archetypes just can't do it anymore. The Notebook hurt the romantic film genre (both comedies and dramas), and even then, it was heavily laden with those archetypes. I actually wanted to see this as soon as I saw who was in it. Roswell first piqued my interest in Heigl, and Knocked Up made me realize she could be funny too. And then Butler. you said, essence of Man. He is what Hugh Jackman is trying to be...seriously, remember Viva Laughlin? Anyways, Butler has had an extremely eccentric career, at first only making small splashes in ok science fiction and better than some game movies. And then, the Phantom of the Opera. True you didn't see his face but for a few moments, but...huh? It was five years ago, Then he vanished again, to make a far better Beowulf film than the CG-3D disaster. One epic to another though, and into the Battle of Thermopylae. And now two somewhat noticable RomCom's and another comic book film, though his character got relegated to the direct to DVD release of Tales of the Black Freighter, but still. Ok, so Hugh Jackman may not want to be him, but they're very similar, and he's never shown himself to dance like a crazy idiot when it wasn't for a part (go watch the blooper reel for Van Helsing). Anyways, good cast so far, I generally like modern Cyrano stories (though hate watching the original, go figure), and it not has a positive review from a critic who I often agree with...sounds good to me.


tyra menendez said...

last time i saw a movie that didn't ask them to change was secretary.