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The Ugly Truth (2009) -vs- Romantic Comedy

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

Once again, Hollywood perpetrates a hate crime against humanity and romance disguised as harmless piffle. “The Ugly Truth,” yet another bright- nd-shiny anti-romantic comedy, flounces into our midst, full of makeovers and double entendres, movie stars and other clichés that might fool you into thinking it’s enjoyable. Perhaps I’m getting crabby after so many dollars have been picked from my metaphorical pockets by this Godforsaken genre, but it’s high time to go back to the drawing board. I surrender, Studio Executives. Gimme a time machine. A time machine or a movie emporium that screens the romantic comedy classics I love, the theater of my mind. Please return to making the kind of movies that made me fall in love with love and movies.

So I’m changing up the format a little for this Smackdown. It’s “The Ugly Truth” vs. The Beautiful Lie. It’s hardly a fair fight, I admit, but I’m struggling here to save you (and our planet) from cosmic disappointment, steering you in another (and for some of you, new) direction. Backwards into our charming and innocent and wise and witty cinematic past. When movie men and women were adorable and we adored them. Here’s my little treatise on all the Classic Films I Love And Why I Love Them. My rant in the darkness, railing Against The Horribly Cynical RomCom Drek That’s Infesting our Multiplexes and Why This All Must Stop.

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The Challenger

“The Ugly Truth.” Well, they got it partly right. It’s ugly. The two leads are shiny as the vinyl automatons they resemble, both gleaming like maple syrup-soaked action figures with the kind of hideously brightened smiles to which we’ve grown scarily accustomed. Gerard Butler struggles gamely with his from-nowhere American accent and sports a rather unfortunate beard. Perhaps he should stick with action pictures and leave the RomCom alone. Generic as can be, Katherine Heigl’s career oman ineffectively looks to bag Mister Right after vetting him with a list and the help of her faithful  (and curiously devoid of any other characteristics) assistant. No other human beings populate this neurotic control freak’s life. No past, no family, no friends. Just a job and a man hunt. Where have I see this before? Oh, yeah. Everywhere.

The Defending Champions

Here’s the thing. There are many. So many I’m going to forget some. But here are some of my very favorites.

You can’t go wrong with any of these films. I fell in love with men watching these movies, fell in love with the idea of marrying one even. I urge you to watch one you haven’t seen or rewatch one you haven’t seen in a while.

It Happened One Night (1934)The Gay Divorcee (1934) The Thin Man (1934) Top Hat(1935) My Man Godfrey (1936) Swing Time (1936) Follow the Fleet (1936) The Awful Truth(1937) Shall We Dance (1937) Holiday (1938) Bringing Up Baby (1938)  Carefree (1938) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) The Philadelphia Story (1940) His Girl Friday (1940) Ball of Fire (1941) The Lady Eve (1941) Meet John Doe (1941) Palm Beach Story (1942) Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

Did they ever do RomCom right after the thirties and forties? Rarely, but yes. Here are some of my picks. Sabrina (1954) The Apartment(1960) ) The Graduate (1967) Two For The Road (1967) Annie Hall(1977) Heaven Can Wait (1978)  Manhattan (1979) Gregory’s Girl (1981)Local Hero (1983) Broadcast News (1987) Bull Durham (1988) Green Card(1990) Truly, Madly, Deeply(1991) Four Weddings and A Funeral(1994) Love Serenade (1996) Jerry Maguire (1996)

The Scorecard

According to the coarse and endlessly smutty “The Ugly Truth,” men want big boobs, long hair, and oral favors; nothing is too simplistic or vulgar for this film’s witless Men-Are-From-Mars depressing dialogue. Euphemisms, familiar and newly coined, fester in my fevered brain even a day later as I wonder whatever happened to subtlety. (I may never eat another bean without gagging.) Written by the women responsible for the far less toxic “Legally Blonde” and “The House Bunny” whose names I will not mention for the same reasons Hogwarts’ minions decline to mention the Dark Lord’s moniker, the ugliest truth is that people are watching this crap and they’re laughing at it. These chick-written vulgarians give Judd Apatow’s slovenly slackers a run for their money, but at least Apatow’s guys have hearts and long for love and romance. Apatow’s raunch comes from a place I wouldn’t want to live but I’ve certainly visited; it’s an apartment with dirty laundry on the floor and milk crates for shelves, a boys club treehouse with no girls allowed.

Just because their names are above the title, we know Heigl and Butler must wind up together, no matter how unsuited and unlikely their characters may be. This Madness Must Stop. One saving grace, a few random upticks in an otherwise irredeemable character does not a match or happy ending or suitable bedmate make. Any Ape Man may well be kind (if inappropriately sexually open) with a prepubescent nephew, he may indeed order tap water, and anyone can generate considerable heat in an elevator kissing scene following the requisite sexy dance foreplay and drinking. He may even uncustomarily cop to a romantic history of pain, sadness and disappointment. These moments of nascent humanity hardly mitigate his otherwise universally gross behavior, cynical raunch, and charmlessness. I’m pretty sure Girls Gone Wild’s Joe Francis/Satan probably asked some girl to a middle school dance and was rebuffed. Does this make him marriage material too?

Generic Cute-Meet Doctor Perfect-Guy (my Gaydar was working overtime on this walking talking Ken Doll but hey…) shows up just in time for the awkwardly contrived misunderstanding/unmotivated breakup scene. Seriously? Is anyone out there buying any of this ill-conceived claptrap?

And while we’re talking generics, let me just go on record and state a truth that may not be universal but is certainly my experience. I am not a montage kind of gal. The number of photogenic places I’ve been with any guy on any date in my half century on this planet wouldn’t make a decent Kodak commercial, let alone a RomCom generic falling-in-love montage. (Contrarily, I could easily compile a terrific falling-down montage of myself, suitable for America’s Funniest Home Videos hundred thousand dollar grand prize.)  I don’t fall in love on the beach at sunset, at picnics in meadows, on mountaintops with city vistas, high atop the Empire State Building.

Nope. I fall in love in conversations which happen everywhere and anywhere. In a crummy apartment with a view of a brick wall. On a bus. In an office, working side by side with someone competent and challenging. My erogenous zone lies squarely and stubbornly between my ears. Gimme conversation, not a view. Gimme a well-chosen joke or a cheap gift referencing something specific, not a dozen roses. Make me feel known. Make me laugh. Generic romance doesn’t do it for me.

Heigl’s much-touted ripoff restaurant orgasm scene is a classic of misbegotten stupidity, unbelievability and vulgarity, a sort of Badness hat trick. Here are the elements that conspire to sear my retinas and scar my sensibilities: the raunchy gift of vibrating panties, a remote control dropped haplessly into a purse, dropped again into the hands of a conveniently bored and seemingly addled child. Hilarity and humiliation ensue as the prudish producer loses control, remote and otherwise. Get it? Or shall I loan you a hammer the better to slam it into your skull for safekeeping? Hey, here’s an acting/writing/directing exercise for you…let’s say you’re actually in a work situation where people with the power to fire and judge you are watching you at close range and you become sexually excited. Is it truly unimaginable that one might successfully cover arousal? Movie drunks frequently overact their drunkenness; real people who are drunk usually try to act sober. Movie climaxing women overact as well; I suspect real women could pull it together with enough (or anything) at stake.

I’m the mother of two daughters, and it saddens me deeply that this is the world in which they must find suitable mates. They were raised in a house where Cary Grant and Fred Astaire played the sugarplums that danced in their heads when they slept, and now they’re of age in a time when barely shaved simians strut their vulgar stuff and get the girl. I know I may have tipped my hand on this one and you know I could write a book but I’ll spare you. For now. Mostly. But here’s the thing: RomCom movies were better a while back and here are some reasons why.

Movie Women were allowed to be pretty amazing back then for reasons too complex to go into here. Suffice it to say that heroines of romantic comedy reached a sort of zenith before most of us were born and haven’t managed to claw their way back over the intervening decades. Movie Men too had a wider berth, not yet consigned to the uncomfortably generic gender roles they still inhabit. Characters came equipped with families, friends, and real history; class or its absence mattered. Intelligence and real quirks were considered genuinely attractive, and sexuality was a subtler thing; the actual deed was done only off camera and after the credits rolled. They had faces and flaws and fabulous wardrobes, impeccably fitting suits and collared shirts, even hats and gloves, a civilizing and expressive layering of clothing subduing and submerging the more primal urges which played out in urgent, even overlapping, dialogue, slamming doors and disguise. Supporting casts were brilliant and highly skilled players, reprising stock characters with tiny twists and elegant turns.

And oh, the writing. There’s a reason I grew up to be a writer, and they’re the reason. Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Philip Barry, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, Robert Riskin, and all the rest.

The Decision

Well, duh. It’s a knockout. Native Americans believe that a tiny piece of your soul is taken when a camera takes your photograph. I believe that a big important chunk of your heart and hopes will be filled watching “The Ugly Truth.” Trust me. Step away from the multiplex and run for Netflix or Blockbuster or your local library and fall in love with: Jean Arthur. Roz Russell. Myrna Loy. Katharine Hepburn. Betty Hutton. Barbara Stanwyck. Claudette Colbert. Ginger Rogers. Cary Grant. Jimmy Stewart. Joel McCrea. Clark Gable. Gary Cooper. Fred Astaire. William Powell. Henry Fonda… I rest my case.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

15 Comments on The Ugly Truth (2009) -vs- Romantic Comedy

  1. And Irene Dunne!
    There are some good recent romantic comedies (you identify many of them), but they seem to fly below the mainstream radar.
    I don’t mind sexual frankness in romantic comedies, as long as it adds to the honest develop of the characters and the central relationship, and is even-handed in terms of sexual politics, but lately the representations *are* increasingly repellant!
    Unsurprisingly, some of the best are based on novels.
    I will avoid “The Ugly Truth”!

  2. To each and every sentiment expressed here: I second that emotion. I love your writing, Sherry. It sparkles. Like Edward Cullen, or a maple syrup-soaked action figure (that’d be more of a shine, I guess). I’d also like to point out that in the absence of romantic locales, your falling-down montage serves to make you a suitable candidate for one of these movies. It shows you’re lovably hapless and keeps you from retaining too much dignity, which is super unsexy.

  3. Melt.

  4. You had me at hello.

  5. You have convinced me to skip this movie!

  6. Finally, a woman with the hutzpah to tell it like it is! The ugly truth of the matter is that most “chick flicks” these days are negatively geared towards getting people to conform to an unreal set of attributes, offerring nothing more than superficial expectations for women to try and attain. The Ugly Truth looks funny, on the surface, but the deeper you dig (and you HAVE dug!) the more rotten the core of the movie appears to be. Great article, and I think there’s a number of other films that could have appeared in the title line and nobody would have been any the wiser.
    Finally, somebody’s said what we’re all thinking.

  7. Thanks.

  8. Of course you are right. You are probably always right. So I’ll let you have the last word.

  9. Brian…do you run a studio by any chance? Is your real name Amy Pascal?
    And by the way, there is no happily ever after. Every RomCom afficianado knows that nothing happens after the cute meet and the circuitous trip to the altar. It’s all just credits and adorable outtakes after that.
    Silly silly Brian.

  10. Or… I could make gross comments about your breasts to my friends and hit on you from a drunken stupor and invite you over to my bachelor pad with the dentist’s chair and dirty laundry strewn about. While there, I could say something nice about my mother (which would make you fall in love with me)just before I throw up. You could hold my head over the toilet bowl and we could marry and live happily ever after.

  11. “Brilliant When Vicious.” Why, Brian, you guessed my middle name. If only this were a classic romantic comedy, we could meet by chance in the lobby following the screening of a Michael Bay film. We’d argue; just for fun, I’d defend him. The old switcheroo. We’d extend the argument into a drink, then a dinner, then an entire evening fraught with sexual tension and actually clever double entendres. We’d disagree and debate charmingly until the camera panned to the ceiling as I slowly removed one of my elbow length gloves. Alas, this is just a blog, and you are only ether. Sigh.

  12. Sherry, you are brilliant, especially when being vicious. Great review. It’s too bad you aren’t interested in the summer blockbuster action movies as well. I’d love to see you deconstruct Michael Bay. There is nothing wrong with fun for fun’s sake, but there is some sick stuff going on in those films. Well done.

  13. Sherry: I couldn’t agree with you more. Ingmar Bergman once said: “Hollywood films are just a tapeworm, a 2,500 meters long tapeworm that sucks the life and the spirit out of me.” I think that’s especially true regarding today’s RomComs and CGI action/adventure/comic book dreck. A great review.

  14. I alwyas hold out great hopes for independent (and foreign) romantic comedy films…it’s just so crushingly sad that studios have so utterly lost the knack.

  15. Sherry… In contrast, we used our Friday afternoon film to go see (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and, even though it’s hardly a perfect film, it is a film about people who are not perfect. It’s also not about people who are completely wrong for each other who turn out to be completely right. It’s actually about people who are sorta right and sorta wrong for each other and the question is what hoops and tests will they go through on the way to finding out. Bryce

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