[11 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Sandra Bullock is much more than her current career arc. She’s a better actress than her RomCom credentials would suggest, and when given material to match her mantle (Infamous, Crash), she can compete with any of her credited competition. Still, Hollywood continues to push her into one lackluster chick flick moneymaker after another, the most recent being the psycho-stalker abomination All About Steve. Interestingly enough, Bullock brought her appreciable A-Game to a different 2009 comedy, a far more favorable look at a megalomaniacal boss and her decent if rather misdirected assistant. A sizable hit for Touchstone, The Proposal (coming soon to Blu-ray) proved that, when put in the right setting, with a semi-sound script and decent direction, this post-millennial matron can sell even the most clichéd claptrap to an audience eager to be swept off their own wish fulfillment feet.
Margaret Tate is the cutthroat editor-in-chief for a highly successful New York publishing firm. She is feared and hated by everyone in the office - including her emasculated, subservient assistant Andrew Paxton. While he has his own motives for taking her taunts and tirades, getting a promised promotion seems more and more like a pipe dream. When the Immigration and Nationalization Service comes after Margaret for an expired visa (she’s Canadian, by the way), it looks like she will be forcibly deported, losing her job in the process.
Suddenly, she has a brainstorm - she will get Andrew to marry her, thereby giving her an out with the Feds. Of course, they are suspicious of Margaret’s motives, and so she invites herself to the Paxton home for his grandmother’s 90 birthday celebration. Arriving in the small Alaskan town of Sitka, Margaret soon learns that her ‘secretary’ comes from a very wealthy family, has issues with his father, and has sacrificed a lot to move to the Big Apple. When the Paxton’s plan a quickie wedding for the couple, it’s crunch time. Either they must go through with the ruse and risk getting caught, or realize that they are actually falling in love with each other.
The Proposal is an inconsequential little piffle, a movie aiming directly for the middle and almost always achieving its aims. Certainly, it flirts with some significantly low brow leanings (the Alaskan male stripper with a pot belly and the savoir faire of a Teamster, the nude meet cute moment between the stars), and prays it offers insight into the reasons why people fall in love. In truth, it’s just 108 minutes of innocuous motion picture archetypes. There’s the distrusting, disappointed dad, the saintly mom, the dirty old granny, the smokin’ hot ex, etc. It’s the same in Margaret’s NYC kingdom, including employees who goof off instead of doing their job, underlings who curse the very ground their bitchy boss walks on, and owners more interested in dollars signs than keeping a dynamic (if rather impersonal) leader in place.
Together with a script that follows the genre formula’s to a comfy flannel ‘T’, and a cast that does its best to enliven the often infantile material, The Proposal is pleasant if almost instantly forgettable. Instead of being emotionally engaged, we simply wait around to see if Margaret and Andrew will fall for each other, or if the morally askew big wig step will aside so that her overworked and underpaid staffer can finally be happy. Everything on the Paxton side of things - except for pissed-off papa Craig T. Nelson - seems sunny and secure. Even Andrew’s previous girlfriend, as played by Malin Akerman, comes off as the most trusting and loving former flame in the history of devastating dumped relationships. The issue with his parents is more of an independence thing than an “I hate you” happenstance. Margaret, on the other side, has a single facet to her one-note characterization. On her own since her parents died when she was 16, she’s simply forgotten what it’s like to have a family that loves her. When the Paxtons show her kindness, she’s unequivocally thrown for a loop.
It’s a good thing then that both Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are on hand to hold down the histrionics. While we never buy our bubbly lead as the kind of callous fiend who would feed a small dog to an eagle in order to retrieve her cellphone, we do feel her isolated pain. It’s especially potent during a late night confessional when she reveals some little known details about herself. Her beefy co-star is equally adept, light on his feet and quick with many of his above-average one-liners. He’s a nimble foil to Bullock’s bravado. Director Anne Fletcher also shows some improvement over her previous attempts at behind the camera creativity. The Proposal is much better than Step Up, or the horrifically ordinary 27 Dresses. Sure, the greenscreen Alaskan backdrops show through early and often (Massachusetts’s was the stand-in for Russia’s famous ‘neighbor’), but she handles the human element of the story rather well. Indeed, this is one of the rare RomComs that doesn’t lapse into illogical slapstick or forced farce every five minutes…sometimes, it takes a good twenty before the burlesque arrives.
Thanks to the new Blu-ray release, we can see just how sappy and silly this movie could have been. The deleted scenes shed light on subplots that could never pay off properly, while the alternative ending is one of the weakest, most misguided attempts at humor in recent cinematic memory (it involves the mishearing and mis-delivery of messages - no, honestly). As for the rest of the added content, there is also an interesting commentary track from Fletcher and screenwriter Peter Chiarelli that illustrates why some alternate narratives are too self-congratulatory to be much good. As for the technical side of things, the movie does look amazing, filled with a natural wonder that only stock footage of the Yukon can provide, and the 1080p HD picture is excellent throughout. Sure, the locational sham is exposed in this updated format, but like the rest of the movie, it’s an excusable flaw.
Maybe that’s why Bullock continues to pull down the big bucks. Even inside a premise as implausible and confusing as The Proposal (if Reynolds is such an amazing assistant, how did he fail to anticipate the visa debacle?), she lifts the material to her level and does her best to drive it home. With an able company of fellow finery by her side, it takes a lot to let the audience down. Sure, the finale feels plodding and unnecessarily serious, considering all the oddball eccentricity we’ve seen before (Betty White, in full Native American headdress, dancing with abandon in the woods?), but there’s still enough here to satisfy. Bullock will branch out once again come awards season, playing a snooty member of Tennessee society who adopts a homeless black teen in the true story The Blind Side. While such a move shows her range, she seems endlessly stuck in situations like this. Good thing then that, unlike other examples of the type, The Proposal is more or less acceptable.