At this point in the movie-going season, the mid-summer crowds are staggering around the multiplexes like exhausted fair visitors — sweaty, sunburned, delirious, and desperate for nourishment but confronted everywhere they turn by greasy, cynical gunk as appetizing as a deep-fried candy bar on a stick. The Ugly Truth is the latest sugary product prepared for your consumption by the major studios' Romantic Comedy Mini-Donut purveyors, but it's not as repellent as its ad campaign indicates. It's not exactly good for you, but it's not exactly bad, either. It's funnier than The Hangover, sexier than The Proposal, and easier to follow than Transformers 2.
The film is a series of refreshingly blunt and vulgar maneuvers in the never-ending Battle of the Sexes. Katherine Heigl plays a starchy network news producer who initially locks horns with a lewd public-access TV troll (Gerard Butler) brought in to revive the station's low ratings. Their antagonism changes into an uneasy partnership as the troll uses his lunkhead "wisdom" about the male libido to help his boss land a prince of a boyfriend. But after a series of trials, the troll discovers that he covets his protégée for himself.
Heigl has been a reliable box-office bet for the past two years, and she's primed for a profitable, predictable career as a second-rate comedienne. She's already working inoffensive, nearly imperceptible changes on her soon-to-be-inescapable role as a type-A supergirl who'd be way better if she could only loosen up and settle down. (Unless something unimaginable happens, the only thing interesting or unpredictable about her film career will be her role in Zyzzyx Rd, which famously grossed $20 during its 2006 theatrical run.) Butler, ever the sport, plays the troll with some gusto, and he's an unusual rom-com screen presence with a slippery accent and a build that's lumpier and more humanely muscular than one might expect.
As this "romance" develops, Heigl's defenses crack admirably and sexily. She's especially good in a silly fracas (involving remote-control vibrating panties) that manages to invoke both Nora Ephron and Nicholson Baker. The supporting cast — Bree Turner as Heigl's assistant, John Michael Higgins and Cheryl Hines (who gets the best line) as a feuding morning-show couple, and NewsRadio's Vicki Lewis in a too-short cameo as a clothing salesman — are good for a couple of surprises.
Still, what a galaxy of ciphers this film presents! No character has an inner life; their actions are motivated by gadgetry, instinct, and blind chance. The superficiality of most onscreen interactions are almost narcotic, and the shared trivia that inflames the two leads' passions is random even by rom-com standards. But the movie is at least honest about the arbitrariness of the final coupling. When Heigl asks Butler why he likes her, he admits that he has no clue. They seem to know that their relationship looks as meaningful and long-lasting as a Saturday-night frat-row hookup sustained only by mutual deception and sadistic sexual gamesmanship. Ain't love grand?