Since When Romance Met Comedy kicked off 2019 with an impassioned defense of Katherine Heigl and 27 Dresses, it seems only fair that I kick off 2020 by taking a look at the more questionable side of her rom-com oeuvre. Because while I stand by my defense of Heigl, there’s no defending her 2009 vehicle The Ugly Truth, a film that’s in strong contention for the worst romantic comedy ever made. The Ugly Truth is a particularly egregious misstep within Heigl’s frequently dubious filmography, especially because she executive-produced it as well. Two years after the hubbub over Heigl calling Knocked Up “a little sexist,” Seth Rogen quipped on The Howard Stern Show, “I hear there’s a scene [in her latest film] where she’s wearing… underwear… with a vibrator in it, so I’d have to see if that was uplifting for women.” Spoiler alert: It’s not!
Heigl plays Abby, a high-powered, high-strung Sacramento morning show producer forced to work with misogynist “truth teller” Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), whose relationship advice boils down to telling women to lose weight and give more blowjobs. Like all professional women who own cats, Abby is desperate for love but too clinical and controlling to find it. So when she meets hunky orthopedic surgeon Colin (Eric Winter)—the rare man who meets all 10 criteria on her dream guy checklist—Abby finds herself somewhat reluctantly taking Mike’s advice on how to make herself more appealing to the opposite sex. Namely: Wear a pushup bra, get hair extensions, fake laugh at his jokes, and never criticize him or talk about your own problems. In the end, however, Colin falls in love with the fake version of Abby, while it’s Mike who falls for the real one.
The Ugly Truth attempts to update the dynamic of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson bedroom comedy with the 21st-century gender politics that fueled 2000s rom-coms like Hitch, What Women Want, and He’s Just Not That Into You. All of these films contrast the magnanimous way things should be with the crass way they actually are (a.k.a. “the ugly truth”) before building to a climax that acknowledges there are no hard and fast rules because, hey, the heart wants what it wants! And while you’d think that would at least allow The Ugly Truth to explore an arc in which Mike reforms his ways while Abby learns to loosen up, it’s mostly just an exercise in watching Abby embarrass herself for 96 minutes until she eventually falls into Mike’s arms out of resignation more than anything else. Rather than have Mike mature, the film has his on-air replacement actively advocate rape so that Mike at least looks better by comparison.
The weirdest thing about The Ugly Truth is that it was made by some genuinely talented people. 10 Things I Hate About You screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith were hired to rework Nicole Eastman’s original script, which had been floating around Hollywood for years. (Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck were attached at one point, back when they were dating.) Lutz and Smith reteamed with director Robert Luketic, who’d previously helmed their script for Legally Blonde. But while 10 Things and Legally Blonde are modern day classics with appreciably subversive feminist streaks, The Ugly Truth is, well, The Ugly Truth.
Maybe that’s because the project clearly came with a mandate to recapture the bawdy formula that had made Judd Apatow a household name following the success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. The 2000s were the era in which the R rating became a badge of honor for studio comedies, as many of them packed in as much raunch as they could. Especially after the success of Knocked Up, studios were eager to sell R-rated rom-coms as a titillating new development, never mind that When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman—the two iconic films that kicked off the ’90s rom-com renaissance in the first place—are actually both rated R as well.
It wouldn’t be until Bridesmaids in 2011 that Hollywood finally figured out a way for women to get in on the raunchy fun too. Generously, you could see The Ugly Truth as an inelegant step in that direction—one that sticks to the same old sexist script but at least gives its female lead a little more to do. In her infamous Vanity Fair interview, Heigl said of Knocked Up, “It paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” The Ugly Truth shares that dynamic, but it’s at least much more intentional about it. Abby’s uptightness is an active character trait, whereas in Knocked Up it’s more the result of a screenplay that just doesn’t care about the interior life of its female lead. (The biggest problem with Knocked Up isn’t that Heigl’s Alison is shrewish, it’s that she lacks any kind of cohesive characterization at all.)
So while Abby may be the butt of The Ugly Truth’s jokes, Heigl at least gets to participate in the comedy in a way she didn’t in Knocked Up. And you can’t say she doesn’t admirably commit to the vibrating underwear scene, even if the logistics of getting Abby to an important business dinner in vibrating panties with a wayward remote are incredibly pained. The Ugly Truth is much more sexist than Knocked Up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Heigl had more fun making it.
None of which makes up for the fact that it’s a painfully unfunny, chauvinistic slog in which the most interesting throughline is Butler’s ongoing struggle to tap down his Scottish brogue into something vaguely resembling an American accent. The Ugly Truth was universally panned, but like a lot of rom-coms of the era, it seemed to benefit from leftover affection for the genre’s heyday, making a lot of money ($88.9 million domestic toward a whopping $205.3 million worldwide total). It’s a reality that makes me at least somewhat sympathetic toward women who take on projects like this one. If sexist films are the only ones studios are interesting in making, what’s a woman to do?
And yet it’s also the existence of films like this that basically drove the romantic comedy underground for a decade. Heigl herself later admitted that she oversaturated herself in the genre: “I stopped challenging myself. It became a bit by rote and, as a creative person, that can wear you down.” The Ugly Truth is the perfect example of a late 2000s rom-com that realizes that its audience knows its plot beats are inevitable, so therefore never bothers to put in the effort to justify them. In the big hot air balloon climax in which Mike finally confesses his love for Abby, she asks, “You’re in love with me? Why?” To which he responds, “Beats the shit out of me, but I am.”
In truth, I can’t actually say that The Ugly Truth is the single worst rom-com ever made, especially not when Shallow Hal exists. But it certainly represents the worst of what romantic comedies can be when everyone involved accepts that they’re lowest common denominator fare, not a legitimate genre upon which to build unique stories. The Ugly Truth ends with a supposed-to-be-cute epilogue in which Abby and Mike’s roll in the sack ends with her joking that he’ll never know if she just faked her effusive orgasm—a callback to an earlier moment in which he explains that fake laughs and fake orgasms are the next best thing to the real deal for the male ego. Faking the illusion of pleasure for the benefit of a disinterested audience? It’s hard to think of a more apt metaphor for romantic comedies in the late 2000s.
Next time: Let the river run, it’s time for Working Girl!