July 25, 2009 at 05:29 PM EDT

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?

Robert Luketic
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