Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Squalor: The Ugly Truth

Hollywood's romantic comedies are in a sorry state.  They're about 90% braindead and on the verge of flatlining.  It's puzzling, actually, that so many manage to go so very wrong.  The rom-com is a genre aimed at women; and as they're also frequently written/directed by women, the portrayal of women is, well, embarrassing. Not merely because the results are often vaguely misogynistic, but because they often actually manage to show all women as rather misandrist as well. This is the only real truth to be found in The Ugly Truth, the newest in a sorry run of formulaic films starring one of America's most ho-hum sweethearts: Katherine Heigl.

Heigl plays Abby, a television producer with traits that make her stereotypically "difficult to love". She's supposedly a smart, sassy, control freak who has high ideals and a checklist of the superficial qualities she wants in a man. It's implied that in most areas of her life, she's a successful and confident woman. When it comes to relationships, however, all of her stronger traits obviously make her a desperate harpy (by Hollywood's standards). Never mind that Abby is less a high powered woman than a high powered shell. Also, you should probably ignore all the bits where her lack of social graces and inability to control a situation belie her reputation as domineering and intelligent. She's Hollywood's idea of the corporate Everywoman. No personality other than the one that gets the job done.  Also, apparently, no real job skills outside of being a nag.

What do we know about Abby? We know that she likes cats. Her ideal mate is well read and likes red wine. She's a television producer, and she doesn't really agree with Mike's (Gerard Butler) wacky rating-grab point of view. That's it! Her only friends are her coworkers, she has no family to speak of, no interests outside her job. As for Mike? He's a dude who mines 'the dark side of humanity'. He was hurt in the past. We're supposed to know he's not such a bad guy because he looks out for his preteen nephew. Together, Abby & Mike are shiny plastic people whose lives are a string of awkward moments stolen from the canon of more successful rom coms.  The Ugly Truth plays by the rules. Media jobs? Check. Grand gestures? Check. Yes, you best believe there's even a restaurant orgasm scene a la When Harry Met Sally. Yet, where the battle of the sexes is a theme that runs through the best of them (take, for example, any old school Kate Hepburn flick, or even Jane Austen) here it's less of a battle, more of a passive shrug of the shoulders.
We all know what happens. Don't feign ignorance, it's not becoming. Girl meets boy. Boy is pig. Girl listens to boy anyway. Boy's advice sort of works. Boy and girl get along alright. Everyone friends. Kiss. Oops! Big blowup. Grand gesture. Happily ever after.

I'm sorry, did i ruin it for you? I mean, the poster alone was a spoiler so i figured we were pretty safe...
The worst part of The Ugly Truth (apart from the slapped together plot, lack of characterization, and alarmingly fast leap from mortal enemy to trusted confidante) is that it's a film written by three women. Kirsten Smith, Nicole Eastman, and Karen McCullah Lutz (some of whom have been responsible for smarter, more surprising comedies like Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You) are part of something Variety's Nicola Laporte is calling "The Naughty Girl Movement". The Naughty Girls are a response to the man-children of Judd Apatow brand bromances. If the guys can do raunch, why can't the girls? Well, because in attempting to amp up the raunch in formula comedies like The Ugly Truth, you wind up victimizing the people you're trying to connect with while at the same time reinforcing the myth of the happy ending.  Apatow's bromances are essentially inadvertent romantic comedies. Romantic relationships are not that which defines the character. Instead, relationships are (more often than not) the accidental result of a self-improvement and friendship brought about through personal reflection and trial and error. No one's worried about whether or not the romance is going to work out because that's not the point. The point is that the protagonist has completed something that allows us to walk away from the film knowing they'll generally be alright whether they're in love or not. What Hollywood has stupidly failed to realize is that the general prototype for your standard bromance is one that already exists in a female form.  We don't need a "naughty girl movement", we've already had it.  Sex and the City in its unedited, pre-movie run, was the perfect example of female based candor and crudity done right. That is, of course, until Hollywood sanitized it and released a three hour nightmare of a film. But that's a story for another time....don't get me started.

The point is that when Heigl's character goes for the laughs, it's a mortifying experience. She blindly follows Mike's advice and subjects herself to any number of misguided claims that leave the women in the audience sinking lower into their chairs. While there are a few laugh-worthy moments in the film, most are steeped in frustration. Gerard Butler's character doesn't escape either. He's not a rogueish charmer, but a guy who spits out a mess hundreds of men are going to have to clean up later when their girlfriends want to know if their ponytail makes them look like they're operating heavy machinery. The moral of the story: everyone is painted in a bad light. Supposedly independent women will do the most pathetic things to land a boyfriend, and all the best men hide their true natures under layers and layers of misguided bitter misogyny.  Having a personality is apparently the worst thing that can happen in love.

Have you seen a romantic comedy before? Because if you have, there's absolutely no reason to watch this one.

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