The Proposal (2009)
Directed by Anne Fletcher
Written by Peter Chiarelli
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Denis O’Hare, Malin Akerman, Oscar Nuñez, Aasif Mandvi
Run Time: 107 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Sandra Bullock is the paragon of a romantic comedy heroine. She’s lovely to look at, as well as a true comedienne, both physically and emotionally capable, as adept at pratfalls as she is at shedding real tears. She also has that wonderfully feisty tomboy spirit that brings to mind the late, great Katherine Hepburn, or even a more palatable (i.e. non-abrasive) version of Rosalind Russell. So why does she find herself the star power behind so many romcom stinkers? Is she too busy making a life for herself in Austin to care about the quality of the “projects” she “gets on board?” Maybe it’s not Miss Bullock’s fault at all. Maybe no one in Hollywood knows how to make a romantic comedy anymore. Or better put, no one knows how to WRITE a romantic comedy anymore.
I won’t blame Miss Bullock for The Proposal’s yuck factor. Nor will I blame the rest of the charming cast, or the film’s director, Anne Fletcher, all of whom try their best to wring every last ounce of humor out of the material they’re given.
So let’s get to the real problem with this movie—the script. Part of the fun of watching romantic comedies is recognizing the set-up (mismatched couple) and enjoying the comic release of their sparring, all the while knowing that the happy ending will inevitably assuage us with its re-iteration of love’s enduring strength. (Sigh.)
The problem with The Proposal is the script doesn’t quite live up to the formula we’ve come to expect. From the very beginning, I was perplexed by the proceedings. The film opens with a brazenly unlikable portrait of Margaret Tate (Miss Bullock), a corporate bitch of an editor who lords it over a New York book publishing business in much the same way Meryl Streep did in The Devil Wears Prada. Ryan Reynolds plays her bullied assistant, Andrew Paxton, who takes her barking with just enough barely hidden contempt to let us know that he’s not a limp noodle. How we’re ever going to get to the part where these two actually start liking each other is a miracle that depends almost entirely on the audience’s good faith in Sandra Bullock’s inherent niceness. On paper, Margaret Tate is a woman we really, really want to hate.
When Margaret finds out she is to be deported back to Canada due to her own imperious negligence of immigrant regulations, she bribes Andrew into proposing marriage so that she’ll be allowed to stay. They have to prove to her skeptical immigration officer that it’s not a marriage of convenience, however, which leads them to make a weekend visit to Andrew’s family in Alaska to celebrate his grandmother’s 90th birthday.
It is in Alaska where things get yucky. Besides the hackneyed fish-our-of-water jokes that we have to endure, there’s the immediate realization that Andrew is from a wealthy family, which I found to be a depressing turn of the screw. Why can’t Andrew just be handsome and clever? Why does he have to be rich, too?
Not only that, but Andrew’s family is wealthy suburban in a way that is all too contrived to be funny. His father (Craig T. Nelson) comes across as an unloving tyrant, and the mother, played by Mary Steenburgen, is his longsuffering Stepford wife, who smiles cheerfully through it all. The one scene where she gets to tell her husband off is a painfully obvious, and painfully small, concession to the feminist creed. I perked up when bitchy Margaret is introduced to Andrew’s small-town tycoon of a father, and she icily insists that her name is Margaret when he calls her Maggie. But this interesting path to Andrew’s affections (Andrew hates his father) ends up going nowhere. In fact, Margaret and Andrew’s eventual pairing is partly attributed to this family he belongs to, and Margaret’s sudden realization that a family’s love is what she’s been missing all along.
At least, I think that’s what happens. It’s hard to tell, since nothing about Andrew’s family is that lovable. They are headstrong, though, even managing to convince the two faux fiancés to have their wedding that very weekend, even railroading the bride-to-be into wearing the very dress “Gammy” Annie herself got married in.
The family matriarch, “Gammy” Annie, is supposedly half native Alaskan, but as played by TV sitcom veteran Betty White, she acts more like a Jewish yenta from Brooklyn. Betty White looks completely at home in this dumbed-down fare, even when she sports native garb for a little chanting in the woods. It’s just another paycheck after all. Hopefully, TV’s The Office regular Oscar Nunez felt the same way during his male striptease at the local beer joint where the Paxton ladies take Margaret to celebrate her engagement—a weird Paxton family ritual that ends up being funny only because it’s so embarrassingly grotesque. What it says about the state of feminism, I shudder to think.
As for what else eventually brings Margaret and Andrew together, it has something to do with how their lips make contact when they are forced to kiss after they announce their engagement, followed by a pretty funny incident that finds them accidentally stark naked in the same room together. Andrew turns suddenly smitten when he sees Margaret in the flesh, although why he never noticed that sculpted body underneath the skin-tight clothes she was wearing before, God only knows. Ah, true clichéd love.
Luckily for us, Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have an alluring chemistry that helps us stomach all the clichés. Miss Bullock is twelve years older than Mr. Reynolds, and besides one tiny joke by Betty White about Margaret not being a “girl,” there is no allusion to the difference in their ages. It’s too bad, because the age factor could have added some real spark to an otherwise boring love story.
Sandra Bullock is so amazingly well-preserved as to not make the age difference noticeable, but I couldn’t help but smirk when she dropped the baby-making quilt that Gammy Annie offers her as if it were a hot potato. And watching Mary Steenburgen play her future mother-in-law made me want to start calculating birthdays. It looks like Miss Bullock might end up relegated to mother-in-law roles herself in ten years if someone doesn’t start writing about older women with a more interesting perspective about age. But I guess by that time, she’ll be happy to stay home in Austin.