The Ugly Truth: Too Easy to Hate August 22, 2009
I’ve been writing fiction since I was in second grade, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the art of creation, it’s that your story has to be more real than reality is. And while the your audience may experience that magical suspension of disbelief if all or part of your plot is implausible, this effect is ruined when hollow, unrealistic characters highlight this so much that it’s impossible to get lost in your work.
That’s my major problem with The Ugly Truth. I’m sure this post will give away nothing, as the adverts tell you everything you need to know: the main female is hilariously neurotic and uptight, and it takes a crass, sexist, sexily unshaven man to loosen her up by turning her into the perfect object to land her dream guy! But lo, he has fallen for her! They almost admit their feelings, there is the misunderstanding that leads to an emotional scene, but finally (in a hot air balloon, for Christ’s sake) they embrace their love, and kiss while leaning dangerously out of the basket.
Abby is the picture of unrealistic neurosis – she’s chronically single and looking for the perfect guy, and viciously defensive of her idealistic views of love. Her career success isn’t enough – she will never be complete without her wine drinking, cat loving, caring professional. She resorts to “crazy” extremes to ensure her mate is perfect (a background check on a guy you met via internet dating sites? Tsk, tsk). And do you remember that kid on the playground who would whisper expletives to the little girls? He grew up to be Mike: “I’m offensive! And sexist! Observe me trotting out every cliche gender stereotype I can think of! Do you hear how bold am I to save these things? Are you listening to how edgy I am? ARE YOU LISTENING?”
Our world – the real world, where Mike would be fired on the first day of his segment on the show, and where Abby has romantic options aside from Captain Crassness and Dr. Wonderboy* – is connected by a fraying thread to the magical land of the film. There’s no challenge in movie; it’s a comfortable world where men and women are so simple to understand (because they’re all the same). This is exemplified in a scene where Mike “helps” Abby make Dr. Colin Perfectionstein desperate to date her. Clearly all men think that a casual request for a date is desperate. So hang up on him, call him by the wrong name, leave him on indefinite hold and he’ll be eating out of your hand! He predicts to the second when the good doctor will call again, knowing he’d be intrigued by the bad manners of a woman he’d met exactly once before. Wowed at his precognitive abilities, Abby follows Mike like a puppy, and he sexually harasses his way into her heart while teaching her how to be exactly what every single male ever wants from a woman.
You could probably make a decent case that the movie is really encouraging the Abbys of the world to be themselves instead of becoming an eternally appeasing lovebot to get a mate. But it’s done so poorly that it’s a hard theory to support. I mean, how does Abby actually end up with Mike? Sure, she ends the relationship with the good doctor because he doesn’t love her as she is, but Mike only falls for her after he’s tarted her up a bit. So I suppose the real lesson to take from this film is that you can be yourself as much as you like, as long as your hair is down and grabbable and your shoes were not selected for comfort.
Either way, you don’t need me to point out that no one actually behaves like this in real life.
But even if you can push aside the abysmal characterization (which, as you can see, I can’t), the story doesn’t even provide a real conflict. The characters slip so smoothly from enmity to affection to love. There’s no real, visible conflict, from either party, about how they’re falling for the sort of person they’ve loathed up to that point. It would be so easy to craft an absurdly hammy scene in which, say, Mike wonders aloud, “How could I love this crazy girl who is everything I loudly declare is wrong with women? O woe, woe!” We see not the slightest hint of this conflict until the coincidence-fest of the closing scenes.
If you’d like to write romantic comedies, here’s a little tip. A lot of what people are looking for here is vicarious emotion. That’s why we want “typical” characters, roles we could neatly daydream ourselves into. And that’s why the conflict comes with tears, the stirring music, and usually one of the lovers looking longingly at a photograph or memento of the other but too proud to admit to whatever mistake they’ve made. Finally, the lovers are reunited when one party admits their misstep and asks forgiveness. Love is declared and the music over the credits is triumphant. The Ugly Truth is just filled to the brim with opportunities for one lover or the other to do something, anything, to create a real interpersonal conflict. Instead, the screenwriters looked at all those options, shook their heads in dismay, and then one said “I know! A huge misunderstanding fueled by coincidence!” No one is to blame here – Abby’s boyfriend just happened to show up at the hotel to surprise her, and Dame Fortune dictates that he has to change his clothes, and who would have guessed that Mike would knock at the door while he was still shirtless and muscular. When Abby and Mike fight in the hallway, it’s not because they still haven’t resolved their divergent views of the world, but because of this simple misunderstanding.
Even the resolution to this contrived conflict isn’t effective. Abby, shrill harpy that she is, is so insensitive as to focus on Mike’s insults rather than let the two or three “but I love you” statements block out everything else he’s saying. He’s opening up the doors to his heart just enough to throw rocks at her. That, at least, is somewhat true to life. People who feel hurt hesitate to open up and can throw out cruel and defensive things. It is not, however, realistic for this to lead directly from “you’re an insensitive dick” to “kiss me, you fool!” in roughly 45 seconds.
I’ve written some horribly embarrassing, sloppy pieces of fiction in my life, I can admit. But out there, somewhere, a writer is toasting farewell to the last of their literary credibility with Sony Pictures subsidized vodka tonics.
* Post-script for the writers of this film: if one of your characters is such a horribly contrived image of “perfection” that members of your audience insist that he must be part of a sinister trick one character is playing on the other, it’s time to consider a career change. I mean, Colin affirms his love of cats in the exact words Abby uses to describe the man of her dreams. This is not okay.