July 25, 2009 at 05:29 PM EDT

The Ugly Truth

Current Status
In Season
Wide Release Date
Gerard Butler, Katherine Heigl, Kevin Connolly, Cheryl Hines, Bonnie Somerville
Robert Luketic
Columbia Pictures
Nicole Eastman, Karen McCullah Lutz, Kirsten Smith

It’s a movie conversation I’ve had dozens, if not hundreds, of times, quite often in the halls of EW. A woman will ask me if I’ve seen the chick flick that’s about to come out that weekend; I’ll say yes. She’ll ask me what I thought of it, and I’ll say, I didn’t care for it much. (I don’t always say that, of course; I’ve been known to enjoy a few chick flicks in my time. But more often than not, I’ll probably cough up some variation on…not very good.) And then, almost inevitably, she’ll respond with a conspiratorial smile and a variation on the line: “Well, that movie isn’t really for you!”

For a long time, I confess I bristled at that response. I’d think, “Come on! Do you really believe a man can’t like a romantic comedy?” But of course, I wasn’t getting it — I really wasn’t. It took me years to figure out what my female questioner was really saying. Which was: This movie isn’t for you not because men don’t like romantic comedies, but because they don’t like bad romantic comedies.

And women — let’s be honest — do. In fact, I’d wager to say that the cheese factor in a romantic comedy is quite often its secret ingredient. It’s part of what makes romcoms such munchy, fun, guilty-pleasure comfort food.

Take The Ugly Truth. It got horrible reviews (most of them a bit too harsh, if you ask me), but on Friday it racked up $10.7 million at the box office, on the way to a potential weekend gross of roughly $30 million, making it the umpteenth example of a chick flick that woos its core audience a lot more effectively than it does reviewers. Yet right now I’m not so interested in the usual, boring fan/critic audience/elitist disconnect. What I want to know is: How many women went to see The Ugly Truth because they expected it to be terrific? And how many went expecting it to be the cheesy-tacky, horndog-caveman-meets-classy-Barbie cartoon it is, yet almost welcoming the mediocrity?

As that chick-flick goddess Carrie Bradshaw might put it: Are chick flicks good because they’re not good for you? Is the key to what makes a chick flick good…that it’s sort of bad?

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