by Mel Valentin
Formulaic, predictable, and clichéd, with only the chemistry between the leads, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, and Betty White’s ribald one-liners to keep it afloat on the seas of mediocrity, "The Proposal" is forgettable, disposable entertainment, albeit one where the decades-old conflict between career and domesticity plays out as expected, with chaste, heterosexual monogamy winning out. With a shallow, manipulative screenplay by Pete Chiarelli and competent direction from choreographer-turned-helmer Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses," "Step Up"), "The Proposal" will provide Bullock and Reynolds’ fans with a hundred minutes worth of tepid amusement, but for everyone else, "The Proposal" will look like any other assembly line romantic comedy.Margaret Tate (Bullock) is a “modern” career woman. She has everything, or almost everything a woman could want, a high-powered, well-paying career in publishing as the editor-in-chief for Golden Books in Boston Massachusetts. She’s the caricature of a female executive (at least as it exists in Hollywood films and on television): cold, authoritarian, ruthless, and demanding. Everyone in the office fears Margaret, everyone despises her (they IM each other to warn of Margaret’s arrivals or close proximity), but everyone meekly follows her orders without question, including her long-suffering executive assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds). For three years, Andrew’s given up his evenings and weekends to be on call for Margaret. He wants a promotion, but Margaret’s hesitant to give him up.
"Formulaic rom-com made bearable by co-lead chemistry."
When, however, Margaret learns she’s about to be deported (she’s Canadian), she instantly comes up with a plan: marry Andrew. Andrew initially balks, but quickly realizes that he can trade his signature on a wedding certificate for the coveted promotion. Margaret and Andrew file their initial paperwork with a distrustful immigration agent, Mr. Gilbertson (Denis O'Hare), who warns them that fraud carries a fine and punishment for Andrew and deportation for Margaret. Andrew and Margaret press on, however, and agree to return early the following week for an interview. To better prepare for the interview, Margaret agrees to visit Andrew’s family in Sitka, Alaska, where they’ll announce their engagement to Andrew’s parents, Grace (Mary Steenburgen) and Joe (Craig T. Nelson), and celebrate the 90th-birthday of Andrew’s grandmother, Annie (Betty White). There, Margaret meets Andrew’s ex-girlfriend, Gertrude (Malin Akerman).
The best (and probably the worst) thing that can be said about The Proposal is that it’s another romantic comedy (or “rom-com”). Rom-coms have their pleasures, some guilty, some not; otherwise Hollywood would cease and desist from releasing 10-12 (or more) rom-coms every year, usually during slack periods (e.g., spring, early fall) or as counter-programming during the summer or holiday months. They’re usually made cheaply, with only one or two stars commanding sizable salaries, they’re made on location or on a studio backlot, and they generally involve minimal action (beyond the usual assortment of sight gags, pratfalls, and awkward, character defining encounters). Doubling or even tripling the usually modest investment theatrically or through alternate channels (e.g., DVD sales and rentals, on demand, and cable), is practically a given, especially with well-timed, well-advertised releases.
As a typical rom-com character, Margaret might start off as the closed off, unemotional, career-oriented woman who coldly offers a promotion in exchange for marriage and a green card, but by the end of The Proposal, the audience knows she’ll be “saved” by the redemptive power of romantic love to declare her true feelings toward Andrew (and, of course, vice versa). In this rom-com iteration, the conflict unfolds on two levels, on the choice between career and domesticity and between commerce and love. The choice is usually simple, the motives ultimately pure (or purified through minor setbacks) and moviegoers can, as usual, leave the movie theater in positive moods (well, at least some of them can). For non-rom-com fans or rom-com fans with slightly higher standards, The Proposal delivers on the genre’s formulaic pleasures, but only marginally.To succeed commercially, rom-coms rely heavily on the chemistry between the romantic leads. Without that chemistry, audiences won’t invest in the final, uplifting moment. In that respect at least, "The Proposal" delivers. Bullock has made a career at playing smart, determined women and Margaret fits comfortably into that range. Reynolds has relied on his smooth, believable delivery and comic timing, both of which serve him here, often raising Chiarelli’s dialogue beyond the merely banal. As a couple, first linked by commerce, later by chaste romantic interest, Bullock and Reynolds are always convincing. It’s a pity then that Chiarelli’s screenplay and Fletcher’s direction didn’t give them more to do. Then again, that’s probably expecting too much from a film like "The Proposal," where, ironically, box-office success depends on moviegoers ignoring the purely pecuniary instincts that greenlighted the project in the first place.
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originally posted: 06/19/09 10:00:00