Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Ugly Truth (Columbia, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After House of Darkness Lifetime changed tone dramatically (something they usually don’t do on their Saturday night prime-time movie double bills!) and showed The Ugly Truth, which turned out not to be a Lifetime TV-movie but a feature film from 2009, made at Sony’s Columbia studio (and with a title strikingly reminiscent of The Awful Truth, Columbia’s screwball comedy classic from 1937) and a genuine, if not altogether successful, attempt to revive the screwball comedy in the modern era. Directed by Robert Luketic (whose last name sounds more like an electroplating process than a person) from a script by Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, The Ugly Truth stars Katherine Heigl as Abby Richter, producer of a low-rated news/talk show on a local TV station in Sacramento. Her show is bombing in the ratings, and the station manager — who worked there when it was family-owned and, like Abby, is having to adjust to the new management of the big media corporation that just bought it — is badgering her for ideas on how to boost ratings. One night Abby is at home when her cat steps on the TV remote, accidentally turning it on to “The Ugly Truth,” a public-access cable show hosted by a male-chauvinist pig named Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler, before he started making the … Has Fallen movies and saving the life of the President of the United States from terrorists in every one).

Chadway’s schtick is attacking women on the air; he takes calls from them and when they call him out, or try to, on his view of women as manipulative bitches who will lead men around their little fingers just for the hint of an offer of sex, he uses sound-effects machines to ridicule them and ultimately hangs up on them. (Rush Limbaugh’s show began in Sacramento and he pulled similar stunts on women callers, announcing he was about to perform a “caller abortion” and then playing a sound effect of a flushing toilet as he hung up on them.) Unfortunately, the station manager also discovers Chadway and immediately hires him, whereupon his antics boost the ratings of Abby’s show while making her physically ill because she wanted to do a serious news program and instead she’s airing footage of Chadway wrestling half-naked women in Jell-O and making salacious comments on how good they taste. From the moment we see the hate-at-first-sight between Chadway and Abby we just know — at least if we’ve seen more than about 12 movies in our lives — that they’re going to end up together as a couple at the fade-out, but the writers and director Luketic take their sweet time getting us there as they offer us another suitor for Abby, Dr. Colin Anderson (Eric Winter, who isn’t as self-consciously butch as Gerard Butler but frankly did more for me), who’s not only handsome but nice, intellectual, well-to-do (they meet when Abby injures herself climbing a tree after her cat and Colin just happens to come upon her — they’re next-door neighbors — and bandages her ankle) and meets all the 10 points on her checklist of what she wants in a man — something for which Michael ridicules her, saying that the only men who would meet all 10 points are Gay. (I remember articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and other local papers in the late 1970’s that young straight women in the city had two sets of boyfriends: the upper-middle-class Gay men who would take them to concerts, musea and other refined intellectual events, and the proletarians they would need if they actually wanted their ashes hauled.)

Michael makes a deal with Abby: if she’ll follow his instructions exactly on how to court Colin, he will quit the station if she can’t get Colin to have sex with her. Accordingly Abby lets Michael wire her ear so he can follow her and Colin on their dates and give his smirking advice in real time — at one point he tells her, when she and Colin are at a baseball game, to eat her hot dog slowly and sensually (obviously to suggest that this is how she would go down on Colin if he gave her the chance), and while she attempts to do that the hot dog flies out of its bun and creates a crisis where she spills a drink on Colin’s lap, then tries to clean it up — and a hidden camera at the ballpark broadcasts the incident on the Jumbotron (Sacramento’s minor-league team must have been playing a particularly boring game that night) and it does look like she’s going down on him then and there. There’s also a sequence in which Michael buys Abby a pair of panties with a remote-controlled vibrator attached — he’s told her that she needs to start masturbating so her body will once again know what sex feels like and therefore she’ll be able to respond to the real deal — only she’s summoned to a meeting with executives of the corporation who bought her station, and in the middle of their dinner meeting Michael’s obnoxious nephew (his sister’s son, whom he baby-sits for frequently and who seems to be the only person he actually loves in any sense) steals the remote, starts playing with it and sends Abby, in the middle of a work-related dinner, into her first orgasm in years. It all comes to a head (so to speak) at a conference in Los Angeles — this is on the weekend when Abby and Colin were supposed to go to Lake Tahoe and actually get it on after all the dating — instead Michael suggests that Abby bring him along on the conference and they can be alone in their hotel room after it’s over but before they go back — only Abby loses all her self-control and slobbers all over Michael in the hotel elevator, thereby confirming our movie-conditioned expectations that she’s going to end up not with the nice-guy doc but the male-chauvinist boor she’s been resisting, personally and professionally, all movie.

The climax occurs during a big balloon race Abby’s station is covering (Michael has left for a competing station and Abby has hired a replacement who’s even worse, and she pulls him off the air when he makes a remark that seems to be approving of rape), only Abby and Michael end up in the same balloon and can’t get away from each other. Needless to say, it wasn’t hard for me to figure out how this would have been cast in the classic era — my putative 1930’s version would have had Carole Lombard as Abby, Clark Gable as Michael and Ralph Bellamy (who else?) as Colin — and it would have been considerably subtler (thanks to the Production Code) and also considerably funnier; Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler aren’t bad casting for these old-movie characters now (though Butler looked considerably more at home as an action hero in the … Has Fallen movies), and though there are some nice touches (like Michael being interviewed by Craig Ferguson — playing himself — and being momentarily nonplussed when Ferguson plays his game on him, asking him point-blank who was the woman who hurt him so much it left him with such a low opinion of women in general) in the script, for the most part it’s a pale copy of the screamingly funny originals for this sort of movie from the 1930’s. And yet, as annoying as it got sometimes (particularly in the characterization of Michael — one contributor thought the writers should have made the boy Michael’s son instead of his nephew and had him raising the boy as a single father after the mother had left him, which would have added humanity and pathos to Butler’s characterization), The Ugly Truth was also reasonably amusing and a breath of fresh air, both figuratively and literally (given how much of it takes place either outdoors or in well-lit interiors), after the oppressive gloom of House of Darkness!