Back in the days of Bogart and Bergman, Hepburn and Tracy, it was said that people learned how to fall in love how to kiss, beguile, or just hold hands by watching the people in the movies. Today, anyone eager for tips on how to find, and woo, the perfect mate hardly needs to look to Hollywood. Amorous instruction is everywhere on reality shows; in hipper-than-thou men's and women's magazines; in music videos and stand-up comedy; in ruthless-as-you-gotta-be advice bibles like The Rules (guys are dogs who must be tamed!) and The Game (girls are princesses who must be knocked down!); in that big pink Sex and the City boxed set; in the endless massed shelves of chick lit...
Given all that, it's hardly a surprise to see a romantic comedy in which the two main characters aren't so much human beings as walking, talking extremes of he said/she said psychobabble. In The Ugly Truth, Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler), a ranting Neanderthal philosopher-lout, rises out of the swamp of public-access TV to land a segment, titled ''The Ugly Truth,'' on a local news show in Sacramento. Mike's idea of how to make a relationship work sounds like the braying of Andrew Dice Clay spiced with the hormonal sensitivity of Joe (Girls Gone Wild) Francis. He thinks that men want women to look hot and act hotter, and that women who think they're meant to do anything more are delusional. When Mike, on his new TV gig, leaps into a vat of Jell-O with a pair of wrestling bimbos, it's not because he doesn't believe in romance it's because he thinks that's all romance is.
Mike's producer, Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl), finds Mike and his stripper-pole view of the world abhorrent (as well she should). That, of course, is because she's his opposite number, a control-freak prude who treats her prospective boyfriends as job applicants. She's also obsessed with ''class'' (you know, bistros and galleries). As Mike and Abby bicker and claw, they sound like dueling magazines: When Maxim Met Cosmo. But then, assuming that you've spun past the implausible notion that a local news station would ever hire a horndog firecracker like Mike (or that the viewers would give him a 93 percent positive rating), a second contrivance kicks in: He tries to win Abby over by coaching her on tactics to nail her latest prospect (eat hot dogs suggestively!), even giving her a makeover (more jiggle, shorter skirts). At around this point, the movie turns into When Clueless Met Porky's. Seriously, can you feel the love?
The Ugly Truth was directed by Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde), from a script by Nicole Eastman and the team of Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz, the duo who wrote Legally Blonde and The House Bunny. Perhaps because it's less stylized than those films, The Ugly Truth isn't fizzy and fun it's vacuously snappy. Butler, the gruffly bearded Scottish-born hunk, hasn't done much since leading the Spartans in the semi-digitized war epic 300 (2007); this is the first chance anyone who didn't catch RocknRolla or P.S. I Love You has had to see what he's like in an ''ordinary'' role. To judge from The Ugly Truth, I'd say he's a potato-faced Russell Crowe with a lot less charm. Butler has a jovial twinkle, but because he's working so hard to nail an American accent, he doesn't so much enunciate his words as masticate them. He tears into every scene as if he were devouring a 20-ounce steak.
Heigl, who has mastered the art of acting insecure in order to make her porcelain- doll sexiness seem more offhand, has energy problems of her own. She's not just nervous, she's skittish; she can't relax for long enough to let the audience fall for her. She and Butler certainly generate sexual chemistry: They're both so tightly wired, and attractive in such outsize opposite ways (When Gladiator Met Barbie? Okay, I'll stop), that when they kiss on an elevator, they look as if they can hardly wait to go to bed. But does that mean they're right for each other? Or just ripe for an empty hot fling? Mike thinks that a ''refined'' woman like Abby needs a caveman to shake her up. He also thinks that's a finger in the eye of conventional wisdom. The ugly truth is that it's the ultimate chick-flick cliché. C+