LOS ANGELES - At the end of the drearily formulaic romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth," as our two leads are finally admitting they've fallen for each other (no spoilers here, folks), Katherine Heigl's character asks Gerard Butler's why he's in love with her. Basically, he says he has no idea, only he phrases it with a word we can't reprint here.
Our sentiments exactly.
Obviously, in a battle-of-the-sexes comedy like this, the guy and the girl who hate each other at the beginning realize they're meant for each other by the end. But there's nothing even remotely likable, much less lovable, about Heigl's Abby Richter. She's a control freak who runs a tight ship at a Sacramento TV station, producing the morning news with unflappable efficiency and zero creativity.
She uses the same approach in her personal life, which is why she's hopelessly single, despite the fact that she looks like Katherine Heigl. Abby prints out talking points to go over with her blind dates, for example, and has a 10-item checklist of requirements for her ideal man.
Sure, it's meant as a joke, but come on. The idea of a woman being so rigid and frigid is purely archaic — which is why it's so disheartening that the script comes from three women: Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who had much greater success writing female characters in "Legally Blonde" and "The House Bunny," and first-timer Nicole Eastman.
Robert Luketic, who also did better work with "Legally Blonde," directs the slapstick antics in rather unspectacular fashion. A scene in which Abby has an accidental orgasm during a dinner with her bosses just falls flat.
That gag exemplifies one of the movie's chief problems. "The Ugly Truth" strains to distinguish itself from the other movies of the genre with graphically sexual and profane dialogue; rather than being offensive or amusing, the approach feels like a transparent and desperate attempt at being edgy.
Butler's brash Mike Chadway has made a bit of a name for himself in town as host of the cable-access show "The Ugly Truth," in which he spits out misogynistic dating advice and abuses callers. When Abby's station hires him to do his shtick in an effort to boost ratings, he and Abby immediately clash. Naturally, that will change.
Not only does he tell her what to say and do when she lands a date with Colin (Eric Winter), her too-good-to-be-true doctor neighbor, he also oversees her obligatory makeover, getting her out of conservative jeans and sweaters and into va-va-voomy dresses and heels. So it's a retread of both "Pygmalion" and "Cyrano de Bergerac," but "The Ugly Truth" settles down some and becomes vaguely tolerable in these scenes when Mike and Abby banter about relationships.
Mike's rough charms work on everyone, including the station's bickering husband-and-wife anchor team, played by John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines in a waste of both actors' capabilities. Because deep down, of course, he's just as vulnerable and in need of love as everyone else.
Butler's regular-guyness makes the character more likable than he should be; but Heigl, for all her screen presence, looks great but seems stiff, as if she's uncomfortable with the wilder physical comedy of the character. It ain't pretty, but it's true.
"The Ugly Truth," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for sexual content and language. Running time: 100 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.