In "The Ugly Truth," Katherine Heigl plays a single and somewhat prissy TV producer who's dismayed when a boorish, self-styled expert on the male psyche, played by Gerard Butler, becomes the star attraction of the morning talk show she puts together. Butler's Mike dispenses crude words of wisdom on what men want from women, urging them to get on the Stairmaster if they really want to meet a guy. All men care about is "tits and ass," he says; a great personality is pretty low on the priority list. Heigl's superorganized Abby, on the other hand, keeps a checklist of attributes that her Mr. Right will undoubtedly possess -- he's sensitive, considerate and prefers cats to dogs -- and before she goes out with a guy, her assistant, Joy (Bree Turner), helps her out by running an intrusive background check on the poor sap.
The idea behind "The Ugly Truth," as I don't even need to tell you, is that both Abby and Mike are all wrong about love and completely right for each other, and they'll spend the movie bickering and sparring until they figure that out. But until that final, inevitable kiss, we have to listen to them, and the clatter of their crude, brainless exchanges is unbearable. "The Ugly Truth," which was directed by Robert Luketic and written by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith (from a story by Eastman), has an R rating, which is rare for a romantic comedy. But that rating represents a squandered promise. Luketic -- whose credits include one charming comedy ("Win a Date With Tad Hamilton"), one fluffy, harmless entertainment ("Legally Blonde") and several genuine stinkers ("21," "Monster-in-Law") -- has outdone himself here. Instead of using the freedom of that R rating to capture some semblance of the way people really talk about sex -- as Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy" did, getting at the way profanity, when it's casual and spontaneous, can be a part of intimacy -- he instead puts quotation marks around every supposedly provocative or shocking word that issues from his characters' lips. He tells her that her skirt should be short, but not too short: Showing "vage" just makes a woman look as if she's trying too hard. Mike tries to coach Abby in getting the guy she's after (a hunky, dull orthopedic surgeon played by Eric Winter) by taking her shopping for sexy clothes. He approvingly holds up a lacy black bra and declares, "Boobies in this thing say, 'Put me in your mouth, I taste good.'" This kind of dialogue has no place in the movies; let's start a petition to put it back on the playground, where it belongs.
Abby accepts Mike's advice with the wide-eyed innocence of an Easter lamb -- she really wants to snare this doctor guy -- and does a silly, giddy dance when her efforts to be the girl of his dreams pays off. But even though Mike's tactics, by the movie's design, are intended to inflame both men and women (at one point he says flatly, "Men are incapable of growth, change or progress"), Abby is even more regressive. She berates Mike, calling him a "man-whore" for squiring two scantily clad bimbo twins on a date. (He defends himself, insisting he slept only with "the one who can read" -- possibly the movie's single funny joke, albeit a cheap one.) Meanwhile, she sees nothing wrong with pretending to be a woman she's not, just so she can snare a guy who meets the qualifications of her checklist.
These are two intentionally flawed, misguided characters. They're also barely even written, and for that, the actors suffer. Heigl is a very pretty actress: She has the cheeks of a Botticelli cherub. But there's a priggishness about Abby that's deeply unappealing, and Heigl doesn't do enough to play against it. Heigl's character in "Knocked Up" was similarly conventional, as well as judgmental, but that was the point of the picture: That character needed to get beyond the notion that she could control everything and deal with the messiness of life, and Heigl played her with the right degree of sympathy.
But Abby doesn't have nearly as many dimensions; in fact, she's lucky the screenwriters gave her even one. At one point Mike asks her how often she masturbates, to which she replies that she doesn't: She finds the act "impersonal." So he sends her a pair of vibrating underpants which, of course, she ends up wearing to a dinner with some important TV station honchos. (As I don't need to tell you, mayhem and hilarity ensue.) I'm cautious about blaming Heigl for being lousy in a role that's sloppily conceived to begin with. But there's something a little indecent about the way she trades on her fresh-off-the-farm innocence: We're supposed to like Abby when she does that idiotic, giddy dance -- she's supposed to be cute and charming and cuddly, all the things a nice girl should be. Elsewhere, she acknowledges that she's demanding and controlling, and that's supposed to be OK too; she's a modern woman, after all. But Heigl is playing attributes here, not a character. And there's never any real acknowledgment of Abby's hypocrisy: She wants to be cute when it can benefit her and controlling when it suits her, and that's supposed to constitute complexity (as opposed to, perhaps, just good old-fashioned manipulation). Heigl isn't sharp enough to bring that contradiction into relief.
Maybe that's why Butler's Mike, with his rough stubble and fifth-grade vocabulary for various female body parts, comes off as the better half of this dismal couple. His professed attitude toward love is the result of having his heart broken by too many selfish, conniving women. And he doesn't believe these things anyway: When his young nephew, played by Noah Matthews, comes to him for romantic advice, he's the most sensitive guy on the planet.
But even that's giving this so-called character too much credit. Butler doesn't have to do much here, and he knows it. Yet his meticulously laid-back persona is so affected it qualifies as peacockery. It's possible for a guy to be sexy and also completely charmless, and maybe that's the role Butler is destined to fill -- he certainly fills it efficiently here.
"The Ugly Truth" is loaded with sex gags that manage to be both twee and crass: Secondary female characters (like the one played by Turner, and another by Cheryl Hines, who's sorely misused) offer commentary on how sad and underappreciated their vaginas are, or clutch their own breasts and lament how long it's been since they've been touched by a man. The score, by Aaron Zigman, is appropriately adorable: We hear tiptoeing-elf music whenever we're supposed to react to a character doing something especially daring or naughty -- as when Abby, having climbed a tree to rescue her cat, peeks into the window of the house next door and gets an eyeful of her new and very naked neighbor, the doctor she'll ultimately set her cap for. Luketic directs all of these shenanigans with Benny Hill-style broadness. In the end, Mike and Abby realize they're made for each other, and their happiness is complete. But not as complete as ours: We have the luxury of leaving them behind forever, while they're stuck with each other for eternity, a match made in romantic-comedy hell.