Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Proposal

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Malin Akerman, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Oscar Nunez, Aasif Mandvi
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

1/2 (out of ★)

The Proposal
is harmless fluff you wouldn't lose any sleep over skipping, but if you happened to catch it, you wouldn't be completely wasting your time. You'd only be partially wasting your time. But life is short and there are tons of great movies out there, so the latter option seems less inviting the more you consider it. There were only two tasks this film needs to carry out well to succeed and it really nailed one of them. Unfortunately, it was the least important of the two. The important one it fumbles badly. In creating a reasonably believable workplace situation and even selling a really absurd scenario it excels, but in depicting an actual romance and getting us to care what happens to the characters supposedly involved in it, the movie is a failure. That failure is most glaring in its crazy final act, where they try to cram all the emotional legwork that should have been laid out earlier into the last 15 minutes.

While the two leads are sufficient and at least one of them is likable, they lack romantic chemistry, which isn't a problem easily corrected by crazy screenwriting hijinx. I've accepted the golden rule in romantic comedies that two characters who hate each other are supposed to fall in love and realize there's no use even complaining about it anymore. I only ask that it occurs believably (at least by dumb rom-com standards) and they eventually seem right for one another. That never happens here so considering the entire story rests it, the film falls short. On the bright side, it does still have its moments, even if nearly all of them are supplied not by the two stars, but 87-year-old Golden Girls actress Betty White.

Magaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is the demanding and driven editor-in-chief of the Boston-based publishing company, Colden Books. Her loyal assistant, aspiring editor Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) hates her guts, as does everyone else who works in the office. Realizing she's his only meal ticket to the top of the publishing world, Andrew puts up with her often bitchy behavior, which to the script and Bullock's credit, never really crosses an unreasonable line. That's a smart decision that ends up saving the movie from being much more dreadful than it would have otherwise been. The big problem arises when Margaret fails to file the necessary paperwork to obtain her green card and she's threatened with deportation to Canada unless she can come up with a scheme fast. That scheme involves blackmailing Andrew to become engaged to her and trying to dupe the very suspicious government representative (Denis O' Hare) ready to interrogate them on their relationship. With only one weekend to learn everything about each other before the big interview, they fly to Andrew's parents' (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson) house in Sitka, Alaska for his grandmother's (Betty White) 80th birthday celebration.

This small town in Alaska would be better referred to as "MOVIELAND U.S.A." It's one of those quirky places found only in romantic comedies, but rarely in real life where kooky townsfolk reside and involve themselves in bizarre traditions that add to the local flavor. When Margaret begrudgingly arrives we watch her struggle with her luggage for a half hour before coming to terms with the family dog, participating in quirky family rituals and going to the local strip club. Through it all, we discover (not too surprisingly) that Margaret is a lonely woman who's thrown herself into her career because she has no family or man in her life, as if those are the only acceptable reasons a woman would have for doing such a hideous thing. Her blackmailing plan may be taking an unexpected detour when she starts to feel something not only for this family, but Andrew. If you've seen the posters or DVD cover, you know where this is going, but what's surprising is how clumsily it gets there.

It would be opportune to talk about the chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds...if there was any. Well, at least there's chemistry of a professional kind because the two are believable as employer and employee which is refreshing given how often workplace scenes are botched in movies like this. I appreciated that Peter Chiarelli's screenplay didn't cave in to idiocy and present Margaret as a cartoonish caricature along the lines of Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada. Someone could watch this and probably recall bosses they had who were far worse than Margaret and Bullock wisely plays her as a demanding, successful woman who behaves like this because she feels she has something to prove. You could see how she could possibly have the respect of the office and not just merely their fear and disdain. The character isn't doing this for evil thrills, which would have cheapened the entire story. Bullock is really great in these early scenes and so is Reynolds, playing the only assistant I've seen in a comedy who's actually excellent at his job.

It's unfortunate that the qualities that make Margaret a believable boss of a major company are exactly the same ones that make her blossoming relationship with Andrew ring false. Margaret does still come across as a total bitch and Bullock isn't the kind of actress capable of selling the miraculous transformation this script calls for. And while I commend the movie for going against the grain in casting an older woman opposite a younger man, and am impressed Bullock hasn't gone under the surgeon's scalpel to get roles, she just looks too old for him. That wouldn't be distracting if the character of Margaret had a youthful energy about her but she doesn't at all. She's a depressed grouch. So the film unintentionally distorts the story into one of a likable guy in the prime of a his life being blackmailed by his older, boring boss. Even in rare moments when the chemistry is there they never seem to be more than buddies and Reynolds (who I normally like) almost seems impossibly likable, to the point of blandness. The leads aren't necessarily the problem, although both have delivered far better performances in the past. A couple of the supporting players fair worse.

As Andrew's father, Craig T. Nelson accidentally stumbled in from the set of a dark family tragedy, misinterpreting the disapproving dad as a verbally abusive alcoholic that would be better received in a sequel to Affliction than a romantic comedy. It's completely inappropriate for the lighter tone of the material, hitting a dark, sour note. A sub-plot is introduced involving Andrew's ex-girlfriend, "Gertie" (a totally wasted Malin Akerman) that doesn't go anywhere even though all signs indicate that it should. During the long wait for the story to reach its predestined conclusion I did laugh a few times. Betty White really seems to be the only performer who realizes exactly what kind of movie she's in and her reactions to the absurdity around her, as well as her comic timing, are right on the mark. What's funniest is that as an airhead she seems smarter than just about every other character. A running gag involving a local resident (Oscar Nunez) who seems to hold all the jobs in town, is admittedly ridiculous, but funny for what it is.

The ending of this film is such a mess I'm not sure I could explain it if I tried and the execution is so sloppy that I actually had problems figuring out what was even happening in the last 15 minutes. Due to the lack of chemistry and poor writing it's unclear whether Andrew has any feelings for Margaret, and an even bigger question whether they're reciprocal, which makes an already contrived ending seem like it's completely out of left field. There isn't so much as a tiny spark between them the entire picture so both actors have to work extra hard in the final act to sell a bunch of nonsense. That's never clearer than in the predictably cringe worthy final scene. I actually found myself rooting against the couple getting together at points because they seem so mismatched. That's not exactly the reaction you hope to have watching a romantic comedy.

This did reasonably well at the box office and I can actually see why. It's a fun time if you're willing to shut your brain off and enjoy it for what it is. Not much work is usually required for me to shut my brain off, but the absurdities in this screenplay, exacerbated by two leads who don't click romantically, prevented this from being something even I could rally behind. In many ways it's very emblematic of the troubled territory Bullock finds herself in as an actress. She's past the point in her career where she can continue to take the kinds of parts she did in the '90's but it isn't enjoyable seeing her playing bitchy characters either. She's too likable for that. Her residual name value and the likability quotient of Reynolds was enough to get audiences to see it, but The Proposal turns a dumb premise that could have been fun into something far dumber than it needs to be.

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