Review: The Proposal
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Sandra Bullock almost said no to “The Proposal.” “Not another romantic comedy,” was reportedly the rom-com queen's initial reaction, an understandable attempt to break away from familiar fare like “While You Were Sleeping,” “Two Weeks Notice” and the already-wrapped but yet-to-be-released “All About Steve.” Whatever it was about first-time screenwriter Pete Chiarelli's script that made Bullock reconsider, everyone – including director Anne Fletcher (“27 Dresses”), the folks at Touchstone, and especially we – should be mighty thankful she did. Always best in the laughs department (rather than in dead-on-arrival thrillers like her last film, 2007's “Premonition”), the comely comedienne takes a movie ready to crumble on its formulaic foundation (there's nary a plot development you don't see coming) and gives it a rejuvenating jolt of winsome pizzazz. She finds a hilarious helping hand in the great Betty White and a willing compatriot in the far-better-than-usual Ryan Reynolds, but it's she, an actress with Lucille Ball's comedic instincts and Julia Roberts' leggy, girl-next-door looks, who glistens at center screen while often carrying the film on her shoulders. “The Proposal” is not a great movie but, thanks mainly to Bullock, it's great fun.
Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a career-obsessed editrix at a Random House-like book publishing company in New York. She's hated and feared by all those beneath her, who secretly refer to her as “it” and “The Witch.” She's not afraid to walk into the office of a colleague and fire him on the spot. She comes armed with all the usual gear: high heels, conservative couture, lattes and Louis Vuitton bags. The character is stereotypical; the performance is not. Bullock is game for the role all the way, and playfully owns it from her tightly-pulled ponytail right down to her stilettos. Margaret's dutiful right-hand man is Andrew (Reynolds), an aspiring writer/editor who's played slave to his demanding boss for three years in hopes of eventually getting ahead. When Margaret, a native of Canada, finds herself threatened with deportation due to an expired Visa, she blackmails Andrew into marrying her so she can obtain a green card and maintain her high-powered position. Andrew, who feels things deeply whereas Margaret makes life a series of business deals, bribes her right back: he'll play ball if she gives him a promotion. Margaret agrees and the game is on. Immigration (embodied by slithery character actor Dennis O'Hare) smells a rat, and the pair must travel to Sitka, Alaska to visit Andrew's all-American family and prove their union is legit. They're met with skepticism from Andrew's disapproving dad (Craig T. Nelson), joy from his wholesome mom (Mary Steenburgen) and giddy excitement from his pistol of a grandmother (White).
As Margaret and Andrew begin sinking deeper into their not-so-little lie, anyone who's seen even a small smattering of romantic comedies should know where things are headed: with all the people on whom these two are trying to pull one over, are they really just fooling themselves? Along with the fish-out-of-water, the gender role flip-flop and the attraction of opposites, such is an element of Chiarelli's story that was old before Reynolds could even walk. But despite the script's creaky bones (and random holes: Margaret is a major player in the world of media and she doesn't even know what YouTube is?), a case can also be made for its flashes of thoughtfulness. For instance, when Andrew and Margaret arrive in Sitka (which is in fact Massachusetts, crisply captured), it's revealed that Andrew's family is rich and basically owns the entire town, thus putting Andrew, not Margaret, in a position of seniority for the first time. It's a tidbit that's necessary but never overemphasized. Or, in a scene shown out of context in the movie's trailers and TV spots, the filmmakers transcend a basic slapstick gag by assigning it layers of significance. During one of the more heated moments, Margaret falls out of Andrew's speedboat and into the bay. First, we laugh at her misfortune. Then we remember her character can't swim. Then we remember it's Alaska, the water is freezing, and he'll be forced to comfort her. Then we acknowledge the character's human vulnerability. All this before even considering the scene's baptismal implications. I may sound like I'm reaching, but a lesser movie would've just dunked Margaret for a laugh. This one achieved the laugh while still thinking about the bigger picture.
As I most recently mentioned in my review for “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” I've little patience for Reynolds, a relatively young actor who seems to play the same handsome wise guy every time out. Not this time. This little trifle of a movie features Reynolds' most assured and mature work to date, a performance made of subtlety, nonchalance, even inner turmoil. Andrew still exhibits Reynolds' wry sense of humor and sneak-attack delivery, but for once it is underplayed, which I greatly appreciated. Most importantly, Reynolds has wonderful, comfortable chemistry with Bullock: you'd think the two of them have been working together for years. Even though I never really rooted for their romance, I liked both characters, who share quiet and comedic moments more natural than anything in “Away We Go.” In fact, “The Proposal,” which will likely be all but forgotten by year's end, steps right where a lot of films I've seen lately stepped wrong. There's a Native American chanting scene that calls to mind portions of “Imagine That.” With Eddie Murphy, such moments were unbearable. With Bullock and Betty White, they're odd, but gleeful and infectious. There's the whole concept of the big-city career woman being affected by the rural folk, a la “New in Town.” With Renee Zellweger, the scenario was insulting and inauthentic. With Bullock, it's still trite, but it's plausible, enjoyable and, at least at one point, even powerful.
“The Proposal” comes down to the strength of Bullock's performance, her most disarming since “Miss Congeniality.” The 44-year-old actress may want to branch out, and her work in films like “Crash” proves that she can, but the lighthearted material will likely remain her strongest suit. Here she reminds us not only of her killer timing (watch out for scenes with the family's dog), but also of her considerable skills with physical comedy. It's a great example of a performer who, when playing to her strengths, scores big. (PS: Stick around for the end credits – you'll be forcing back giggles.)