Somewhere in Hollywood I believe there's a conference room that is used for one purpose: to completely deconstruct When Harry Met Sally (1989). The walls are covered with script pages, movie stills, charts, diagrams, lists of actors, character traits, keywords, jokes and many other things. Several times a year, some men in suits enter this room. These men can see and understand all the elements that made the movie successful. They understand that Meg Ryan's Sally was neurotic and tightly wound, and they understand that Billy Crystal's Harry was slightly crude (lovably so) and free-willed. They understand that Sally's fake orgasm in the restaurant was a huge crowd-pleaser.
However, they don't understand the imprecise factors, things like human interaction, and romance and chemistry, things that happen all by themselves during a lucky production and can't be planned or replicated. But they nevertheless cobble together a few rough ideas and greenlight the next romantic comedy. The absolutely awful The Ugly Truth is the latest result. Katherine Heigl plays the new neurotic, tightly wound heroine, Abby Richter, who is the producer of a "Today Show"-type morning television news show. Because of her overly-planned, risk-free programming, the show's ratings are faltering. One night she stumbles upon a cable access, love advice show called "The Ugly Truth" and immediately clashes with its slightly crude (lovably so) and free-willed host, Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler).
The next day, Abby's boss has hired Mike as a co-anchor to help spice up the show. Much to Abby's irritation, his callously "truthful" dating advice is a hit, and she is forced to work with him. He ridicules her idea of a "perfect man," whom she thinks she has found in her handsome new neighbor, a doctor named Colin (Eric Winter). Her maniacally aggressive behavior is about to make Colin run for his life, but Mike steps in and saves her, landing her a date. He decides to help out, "Cyrano"-style, to get Abby some much-needed nookie, but before the big moment comes, Abby and Mike fall in love for real. Of course. And don't be surprised that we also get The Big Misunderstanding, followed by The Three Apologies and then the final resolution, which, of course, is on live television.
If only the movie were actually about these people, but instead it's about stupid situations. In one scene, Abby's cat for no reason at all escapes and climbs a tree. Abby climbs up after it, and spots her handsome neighbor emerging from the shower next door, just as a branch breaks, causing her to scream and fall. Hilarity ensues. But the next one is even worse. Mike gives Abby a pair of vibrating underwear with a remote control. Let's see: do you suppose Abby will put on the underwear just before an important meeting with her bosses, and then lose the remote? What a huge surprise! Is it the same thing as Meg Ryan's similar scene in When Harry Met Sally? Not by a long shot.
The inclusion of these and other brain-dead slapstick scenes just underline how little the three writers -- Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith -- and director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law, 21) care about the characters as humans. If the movie were truly about real adult characters, these dumb interludes wouldn't even be necessary. But the filmmakers pitch everything at a huge level of hysteria, as if one more degree of Meg Ryan neurosis and one more degree of Billy Crystal vulgarity should be even funnier. The concepts of subtlety or nuance never come up.
Indeed, even the casting seems calculated. As Ryan, Roberts and Bullock enter their 40s, Hollywood is desperately on the search for a new "America's Sweetheart," and they seem to have settled on 30 year-old Heigl, who is definitely blonde and pretty and also has a kind of down-home nerdiness that makes her seem more attainable than, say, Megan Fox. (We can picture her scarfing down a pint of Chunky Monkey while watching "Doctor Who.") Critics loved her in Knocked Up, and audiences loved her in 27 Dresses. But her excessive, borderline psychotic uptightness in the film's first two-thirds is just downright science fiction; no one is like this. No grown woman television executive curls up in the fetal position in her office closet. Then there's Butler, who is appropriately manly and scruffy, with a credible attempt at an American accent, but his performance is unshaped and uneven.
It's too bad, because a film that pokes holes in the romantic illusions between men and women should be fascinating to both sexes. A few years ago Hitch (2005) used this same dating-advice, physician-heal-thyself theme, but to much greater success, thanks to the wiggle room given stars Will Smith and Eva Mendes. Yes, they had to suffer the same type of slapstick interludes, but they had time to develop into more plausible humans in-between. In The Ugly Truth, it's all too obvious that Mike is a gentle, poetic soul who has merely been abused too many times by all the wrong women. When Craig Ferguson (appearing as himself in a cameo) asks him about this during the film's third act, we can only wonder: why didn't someone bring this up earlier?The answer is because The Ugly Truth actually knows next to nothing about dating advice, the behaviors of men and women, or much of anything else romantically human. It's a factory widget created in a boardroom. Perhaps there's one more thing that secret When Harry Met Sally room needs: a window, so that the men in suits can get a glimpse of things that real people may actually be going through.