Film | Rom coms | Objectivity
This essay aims to analyse the romantic comedy The Ugly Truth (2009) alongside theories of the hybrid genre and the earlier period of comedy. The main points for discussion will include a close reading from the how to keep a man scene and Mike’s first day with surrounding key points.
With comedy, sometimes, we laugh at the stars and at other times we laugh with them. For example, Laurel and Hardy who have been comedy legends since 1917 to 1950 who have starred in over one hundred films. Back then, the market was short for success although the pair made history in Roach Studios. Some criticized their work for being immature but surely, if material makes an audience laugh then it succeeded. Comedy during the early 1930s was relevant due to the depression era.
The Wall Street Crash and unemployment were significant causes of this. In Britain and America especially, industries were ruined and the lack of help from the government did not help whatsoever. Nonetheless, developments were made eventually and many people saw the benefits from the Depression as more purchases were made due to prices being decreased, more houses built along with owning radio and televisions.
For America, racial issues occurred as many people were immigrating there. Consequently, the government planned to educate unskilled workers which resulted to more opportunities for employment and an increase in profits. Comedy offered escapism from these challenging times, for example, Trouble in Paradise (1932) directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
Being a non-music sound romantic comedy, the film used sexual innuendo as sex appeal united a couple after arguing as they made up which is an element of realism in life. The presence of a man stealing from a woman challenges hierarchies of power too. In this case, the expression that “Romcoms are viewed as guilty pleasures” (McDonald, 2007:7) is true as essentially, women take pleasure in watching this hybrid genre whether it’s seen as realistic or fantasy.
The central example, The Ugly Truth (2009) is a romantic comedy filmed in America and directed by Robert Luketic. Starring Katherine Heigl (Abby) and Gerard Butler (Mike). The protagonists play the battle of the sexes role as, Abby who works as a morning show producer is asking a lot for the perfect relationship and is up for a challenge when Mike, her recently new obnoxious TV star, gives her advice on how to look more attractive, how to behave on dates and keeping a man interested in her.
Mike believes that he knows the truth about women and what they really want. Although the film discusses sexual references, only kissing and flirting is displayed – unlike other romantic comedies with humorous sex scenes. The non-diegetic music and voiceover puts the film into the perspective of Abby leading us to follow her through the narrative.
The title offers the semiotics of polysemy, yet we discover the ‘truth’ at the ending. Abby succeeds at work to a certain extent but does not so much with men (how to flirt, date and overcome obsessions). It is a phenomenon in life, particularly with women. Superiority is highlighted in the film when we first meet Mike.
Abby introduces herself as his producer then Mike replies, “I like a woman on top”. A sexual innuendo attempts to break the ice but Abby doesn’t seem too impressed. Mike shows more confidence than a woman with higher status than himself. Typically, obstacles are pushed aside as Abby and Mike’s friendship blossoms to love.
Funnily enough, Mike is teaching Abby how to make someone fall for her when Mike is the one she is falling in love with. This reminds us of the first time she meets Colin as she is embarrassingly hanging from a tree like a monkey in her attempt to be ladylike while she gazes at him through his window. Interestingly, opposite roles are apparent as, usually, the man is clumsy and the woman is attracted to a clumsy man.
In addition to the workplace, a notion of battle of the sexes and employment are combined. Stereotypically, the boss of someone is a suited, older male, so here, Abby is disturbing the norm as she’s an attractive, successful blonde. On the other hand, it is funny how the morning show could be cancelled due to its poor ratings but Mike saves her and the show by his witty and flirtatious self which restore these traditions. Self-reflexivity is gained as “having the power to disrupt hierarchies of power” occurs. (Matthews, 2000:14)
Though, it is equally important to mention that some see Abby as a woman who is controlling her life, whereas others see it is as being controlled by Mike with all of the advice he provides. On the first day of his new job, he ignores what the script says and uses the older presenters to distinguish his idea of “The Ugly Truth” as they seem like the unromantic type.
Not only does Mike reinforce the presenters to believe that they can be young (when they passionately kiss while on air), Mike is shocked to see that Abby eventually goes along with his dirty ways when he shares a tub full of cherry sauce with two women. An element of surprise occurs when Abby instructs him to lick the sauce from one of the young female’s fingers.
Here, it is clear that “Comedy also seems to depend on the exaggerations of stereotyping, understood playfully by audiences, and not always as a ‘reflection of the real’. (Branston and Stafford, 2010:123). In the real world, it would not be moral on a live news show for sexual innuendos or flirtatious behaviour. The news should be factual whereas, Mike is giving life from his dirty-minded perspective.
Similarly to Trouble in Paradise, the romantic comedy holds the traditional values women being used as sexual objects. For example, the denotation of Abby in a red dress and lipstick connotes passion which differs from her simple, minimum applied make-up, white blouse and blue jeans look. This is used as a metaphor as she transforms into a sexually desired woman. Correspondingly, “the genre sometimes mixes a reality base with a certain suspension of disbelief.” (Gehring, 2002:69).
As Mike is controlling Abby to be the woman that men want rather than the woman she should want to be, an ideology is formed that women may need advice from a man, however they seem to hold the power through their sexual appeal. The moral of the scene supplies something that men and women can both relate to although in the stereotypical women as objects way.
Specifically, sexual selection occurs in the how to keep a man scene. Accepting to never criticise, laugh, change her look or discuss her problems, Abby is conforming to the ideology that society forms where men are attracted to looks. We laugh at this because we know that realistically, Mike is attracted to Abby’s personality too. Hegemonic heterosexual identity is formed with references to breasts and legs as a woman’s responsibility to turn a man on while gender discrimination is portrayed as, women just like Abby are always seen as the promiscuous ones flaunting their body.
There are no references to feeling beautiful, just “men like something to grab on to” as Mike suggests Abby needs longer hair and not to have it tied up in a ponytail. Again, Mike is referring sexual activity in order to appeal to Abby and his sense of humour is admired. Specifically when Mike exaggerates, “a fake laugh is like a fake orgasm” which can be read by the audience as “a fake personality is like a fake relationship”. Meanings are not neutral and some take the hidden perspective rather than the literal.
In terms of iconography, Luketic states that, “On this film, it’s really about a fierce battle between these two personalities, about the way they banter and bristle at each other, so we didn’t want to go too extreme in terms of colour or lighting but to really focus on faces.” (Kheigl.com, 2009).
With the indication of both scenes, medium close ups allow the audience to see that Abby is very attentive to Mike as he looks directly at him during conversation with gains his authority. This takes place in settings both in and outside of the workplace such as shopping mall where costume such as bras, cocktail dresses and shoes enter Abby into a new feminine world that has been an alienation to her.
Her facial expressions show excitement wide open eyes. Red is a dominant colour, particularly in the news scene where the cherry sauce indicates sweet allure. As well, women in bikinis interprets objectivity again but overpowering Mike as the workers are more observant to them.
With regards to surrounding discourse, debates rise that “the film fails to deliver above the usual romantic slush” (Rottentomatoes.com, 2009). It is the predictable storyline where Mike helps Abby through the film to the point where he realises he has fell in love with her, yet he still carries on placing her onto the perfect path for happiness with another man as he is too proud showing off with his gift.
On the contrary, a humorous scene which we can applaud Robert Luketic for something more, is when Mike gives Abby a pair of vibrating knickers and reveals the theory of Edward de Bono’s incongruity. He uses these to make her feel more sexual and ready for her weekend away with her new man. Coincidently, Abby decides to wear these one evening to a meal with her colleagues but she was unaware of this arrangement as she planned to a romantic meal with Colin. It is illogical and the audience suspect a disturbance for the evening.
Everyone is waiting to hear Abby’s speech but unaware of where the remote has located to – a kid’s table, where the vibration gradually rises to the point that Abby struggles to speak in her usual tone as ends her speech with orgasmic noises. Mike has a cheeky grin on his face.
Not only does he want Abby to feel sexual but as an audience, we know that he wants to have a romantic relationship with her, he just will not admit it. Considering that the object was only used to create sexual feeling, it resulted to a show of appreciation for Abby’s enthusiasm which proves something more than the usual “romantic slush”.
Intertextuality is apparent in the film’s ending when Mike and Abby are in a hot air balloon and Abby argues back with Mike with, “this comes from a man who has never made a gesture but…” (Makes a sexual gesture). The audience can relate the hot air balloon to The Wizard of Oz and flying away into a happier world and the rude gesture with Notably, a happy ending is conventional along with funny lines as they are a combination which “implies a narrative context” (Neale and Krutnik, 1990:17).
Funnily enough, there was an alternative ending where Mike and Abby fly away in the hot air balloon in their own wedding day but this would have been too generic. The ending gives us an understanding that men and women can overcome obstacles that life throw at them and through awkward moments, there is always a protagonist who delivers humour.
Controversy rises though with regards to gender as, some male viewers may not agree that love is what a real man wants whereas, others, possibly ones who have found the feeling of true love already will share the preferred reading of the film.
All things considered, The Ugly Truth both corresponds and departs from the conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The way Mike treats women involves intimidating approaches, however this works in the film as women end up with more confidence and feel sexier and the ‘Ugly Truth’ simply meaning that not all men can attract women so easily.
Also, they fail to realise that they need love just as much as the woman even if they do laugh at female perspectives. Stereotypically, women can be obsessive like Abby, but changing your characteristics to attract the opposite sex is not worthwhile. Humour in the film hides this while Abby is giving Mike orders for work and he is giving her orders for dating.
The film is a success in terms of superiority and traditions of men and women however, the ending could have offered something different, perhaps a satirical ending where the man doesn’t get the women. Today, many women lead happily, independent lives, at least this is how it is mediated. If roles were reversed, male spectators would not find the one liners as funny as the tone in which Mike says them.
Countless romantic comedies feature the plot of opposites attracting one another. Incidentally, this mocks society as many believe in common interests and similar beliefs, whereas the example of Mike and Abby, arises an ideology that opposites can fall in love just as easily as those who are really alike. Elements of realism such as your morning routine, having a stressful day at work and complications with relationships all provide something believable in the film.
For the most part, they meet audience expectations in order for them to have something to relate to. Parents would hold more truth in ideologies than teenagers as they understand how younger couples hide the personality which comes natural to them in order to attract someone.
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Gehring, W. (2002). Romantic vs. screwball comedy: Charting the difference. 1st ed. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.
Matthews, N. (2000). Comic politics: Gender in Hollywood comedy after the new right. 1st ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
McDonald, T. (2007). Romantic comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre. 1st ed. London: Wallflower.
Neale, S. and Krutnik, F. (1990). Popular film and television comedy. 1st ed. London: Routledge.
Kheigl.com, (2010). Film > The Ugly Truth – Designing The Film | Official Katherine Heigl Website. [Online] Available at: http://www.kheigl.com/press/ugly-truth-designing-the-film/ [Accessed 12 Oct. 2014].
Laurel-and-hardy.com, (n.d.). Laurel & Hardy – The Official Website. [Online] Available at: http://www.laurel-and-hardy.com/ [Accessed 24 Oct. 2014]. Rottentomatoes.com, (2009). Liz Graham Movie Reviews & Previews – Rotten Tomatoes. [Online] Available at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/liz-graham/ [Accessed 17 Oct. 2014].
The Ugly Truth. (2009). [film] United States: Robert Luketic.
Trouble in Paradise. (1932). [film] United States: Ernst Lubitsch.