'The Ugly Truth' is only pretty good

A few years ago, Katherine Heigl did an interview with Vanity Fair and talked about "Knocked Up," the Judd Apatow hit in which she starred.

She called the film "a little sexist. It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it, on some days."

With "Ugly Truth," a sometimes funny and foul-mouthed film, it seems Heigl is trying to rectify those flaws. Written by women and executive produced in part by Heigl, it plays like an Apatow film from a woman's perspective.

Heigl plays Abby, a single and looking morning show producer in Sacramento, Calif., whose controlling ways make her good at her job but not so good at dating. Abby has a list of attributes she's looking to fulfill, and she's clumsy about finding Mr. Right. On one date, with the guy listening, she refers to the background check she has had her assistant do.

Gerard Butler plays Mike, a late-night cable access show host whose program, "The Ugly Truth," features commentaries and phone-in advice about men and women that pretty much boils down to: Men have animal needs; women need to shut up and fulfill them.

Naturally, his show is a hit.

That's not true of Abby's morning show, so her station manager hires Mike to spice things up. He does, and then, after learning that Abby wants to date her new doctor neighbor, offers to give her advice to snag him. Among his pearls of advice: Always laugh at his jokes. Men like long hair because they want something to grab onto. And hold back the sex to keep him on the hook.

Naturally his advice works. And naturally, it takes Abby a while to figure out who she really belongs with.

The odd thing is, despite Heigl's Vanity Fair complaints, in "The Ugly Truth" her Abby is an uptight career woman, although not completely humorless, and Mike is crude and fun-loving, a caring uncle with a cute nephew who's hiding a broken heart. There aren't as many bromances or sex scenes, but the generalizations are pretty similar.

Butler does well with his role. He can be craggly and charming, sweet and obnoxious with ease. Heigl can do uptight, but maybe a little too well. She softens but doesn't warm up. I wouldn't exactly call her charming, which I think a role like this requires, but she can be kind of cute. Still, the best scenes are when they are playing off each other, when Mike is coaching Abby.

Other scenes are just ridiculous. Sacramento isn't Los Angeles, and that's more reason Mike would never get away with most of the foul antics he pulls on the morning show. A worse crime, though, is the wasted talent that sits next to him; Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins play married anchors. They are given far too little to do.

It's clear the film is trying for something meaningful (though not profound), and that too can be found in Heigl's words in Vanity Fair. She spoke of knowing who you are in a relationship and expressing that. "It's easy to be taken advantage of if you're not honest. I knew that dance of trying to please a man, trying to guess what they want you to be, and I got really tired of that, really confused and frustrated. I decided I was sick of trying to figure out what everybody else wanted, and I should just decide what I want, and be honest, and not spend all my time guessing."

That's the film's mixed message. While glorifying Mike's Neanderthal wisdom, it seeks to slap it down. It's that muddle that makes the film unsuccessful.

Apatow seems to know what Heigl may be just learning: exaggerations, in the right hands, can be very funny. And an R-rated romantic comedy with a soft and satisfying underbelly is not as easy to pull off as one might think.

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