The Proposal

July, 2009, Comedy

Directed by:Anne Fletcher

Starring:Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Malin Akerman, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Oscar Nuñez, Aasif Mandvi, and Betty White

Hollywood’s film vaults are full of romantic comedies which feature talented, attractive actors struggling to wring levity and amusement from scripts that sound as though they’d been written by word processors randomly accessing Webster’s Abridged Dictionary. Relatively few thespians can actually spin a bit of gold from the dross with which they’re forced to work and when they succeed, it’s hard to pin down precisely how they’ve managed such an astounding trick. An attractive personality has a great deal to do with it, but I suspect the most important ingredient is an actor’s ability to not take himself/herself too seriously, allowing the audience a smidgen of identification with the hero or heroine who’s dealing with the glamorous froth. Television sitcoms haven’t made things any easier for this genre; they’ve taken much of the mystery out of falling in love by showing viewers the same faces over and over again in circumstances that quickly become repetitious. Familiarity may drive television ratings, but it inevitably breeds contempt. (An example? Despite its extraordinary success, the television series Friends, with its handsome ensemble cast, - - Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Perry, David Schwimmer, etc. - - failed to produce a single performer capable of making the transition to the big screen…

Which makes the continued success of Sandra Bullock all the more interesting; at 45, Ms. Bullock oscillates between dramatic roles (Crash, Premonition, A Time To Kill) weepy “chick-flick” romances, (The Lake House, Hope Floats) and romantic comedies, (Miss Congeniality, Two Weeks Notice, While You Were Sleeping) maintaining a comfortable hold on her position as one of contemporary Hollywood’s most bankable screen actresses. In movie after movie, she conveys a sense of approachability that allows her to not only survive mediocre material, but imbue it with box-office success.

Such is the case with this piece of trifle in which Bullock plays Canadian Margaret Tate, a domineering New York City-based book editor who specializes in pampering authors while terrorizing her subordinates, especially executive assistant Andrew Paxton, (Ryan Reynolds). When repeated violations of her temporary work visa threaten her residency in the U.S. and thus her career, Tate impulsively tells her boss that she and Paxton are about to be married, a fact her boyish secretary learns only as she grandly announces it to her superiors. But a suspicious Immigration investigator who smells sham tracks the couple to Paxton’s home in Sitka Alaska where his family is holding a 90th birthday celebration for his grandmother. Tate is surprised to learn that her hard-working assistant comes from a wealthy family who react to news of the engagement with a mixture of incredulity and anger since they know, from Paxton’s e-mails, that she’s a world-class shrew.

These circumstances inevitably require boss and underling to spend lots of time posturing in front of his relatives and this proximity produces the expected results; she thaws into a warm if repressed woman while he realizes he’s as captivated by her body as he is her impressive intellectual talents and her self-deprecating analysis of her own character. Despite the dire warnings of a cold and distant father, (Craig Nelson) the gushing pressures of mom, (Mary Steenburgen at her saccharine best) and the embarrassingly inane antics of Granny (Mary White) the nuptial ceremony proceeds until Tate interrupts it by confessing her real motivations. She returns to New York to clear out her desk and face deportation, but guess who follows her there to propose in front of the entire office staff…

Alas, an interesting premise does not a solid comedy make; screenwriter Pete Chiarelli’s script contains far too many clichéd situations (a male stripper at the bachelorette party) labored gags, (a pseudo Native American spirit dance gone badly wrong) and lame one-liners, none of which director Anne Fletcher (28 Dresses) rescues with even a whiff of freshness or originality. It’s left up to Bullock and Reynolds to elevate The Proposal  from god-awful to mediocre and thanks to their combined efforts, what could have been a complete disaster turns out to be only a partial one.

Bullock manages the transition from bitchy boss to vulnerable lover with crisp efficiency; she’s smart enough to know that her character requires a number sufficient number of humiliating situations to trigger some insight into her real feelings and the actress suffers through the plot’s often ham-fisted twists and turns with an appealing mixture of misplaced brio and shrewd self-awareness. Warmly attractive rather than knock-out beautiful, Bullock’s skills manage to turn this sow’s ear of a script into something resembling a silk purse; her transformation from uptight witch to a damsel who can honestly whisper “I’m scared” to her suitor at the film’s climax strikes just the right note of sentimentality and candor.

Reynolds, 13 years younger than his co-star, demonstrates once again as he did in Definitely Maybe, that there’s a good bit of self-reflective humility behind that boyishly handsome face and buffed physique; audiences can only hope that his wildly successful he-man role in X-Men Origins:Wolverine won’t dissuade him from refining his potential as a leading man in romantic comedies more nuanced and charming than this one. His smoldering resentment at the way in which his stunning but brutally manipulative boss treats him gives way only gradually to romantic if rueful attraction - - it’s a transition that’s tougher to achieve with an element of lightness than it at first it might appear but Reynolds delivers, blending the right mix of acutely distressed facial signals and chocked responses to her imperious demands. Based on his last two roles, Reynolds has a fine future ahead of him in this genre.

All that said, this one’s essentially a tribute to the economics of star casting; released less than three weeks ago, The Proposal has already taken in more than one hundred million at the box-office, placing Ms. Bullock in the pantheon of Hollywood leading ladies and assuring that we’ll have plenty of future opportunities to watch her appealing blend of humor and glamour. But let’s hope her next comedic venture comes with better material than this one.

The Verdict? A sporadically amusing romance with lead performances that cry out for better screenwriting.      

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