If you don’t know how “The Proposal” will turn out before entering the theater, maybe you’re better off because it means you haven’t seen as many romantic comedies as I have. I, unfortunately, know the formula like the back of my hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad movie, of course, but it does make it a lot harder to get into. Imagine, if you will, two people at opposite ends of the personality spectrum; she’s a pushy boss, and he’s her lowly personal assistant. Now imagine that they find themselves in close contact for a couple of days, and during that time, they discover that they do, in fact, love each other. Honestly, it doesn’t take a degree in cinema to figure this one out. Thankfully, “The Proposal” manages to be halfway decent in spite of its overused formula. I’m not quite recommending it, but still, there are worse films out there (“My Life in Ruins” very quickly comes to mind).
The pushy boss is Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), who works for a publishing house in New York City. Actually, she’s more like the boss from hell, not so much because she’s demanding but because she’s incredibly mean-spirited, pointing out personal faults that have no business being pointed out. Her lowly personal assistant is Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds), a driven young man with a manuscript he wants published. In the course of fifteen minutes, Margaret fires a prominent employee, bullies a reclusive author into appearing on “Oprah,” and orders Andrew to work over the weekend. It doesn’t matter to her that he was supposed to go home to Alaska that same weekend for his grandmother’s ninetieth birthday.
The crux of the story: Margaret, a Canadian immigrant, has just learned from her superiors that her visa has expired, which means she’ll have to leave the company and be deported. Desperate to stay on top, she blackmails Andrew into pretending that he’s her fiancé. He goes along with it, but only on the condition that he be promoted to an editorial position. They then have to convince an immigration agent (Denis O’Hare) that they’re not committing fraud, so they say that they will be going to Alaska over the weekend and surprise Andrew’s family with the good news (Margaret’s family is conveniently not in the picture). At this point, they agree that it’s strictly a business deal; they will get divorced as soon as they possibly can and move on with their lives.
In Alaska, Margaret is shocked to learn that Andrew is from a very affluent family. Here enters his accommodating mother, Grace (Mary Steenburgen), his kooky but loveable grandmother, Annie (Betty White), and his disapproving father, Joe (Craig T. Nelson), who wanted him to stay in Alaska and take over the family business.
The ensuing scenes of Margaret and Andrew fooling everyone around them don’t generate big laughs, although their sarcastic verbal jabs are effective. I also admit that they share more than a few smirk-inducing physical moments, such as when they bump into each other and fall over when they happen to be completely naked. There’s also a point at which he’s forced to get into bed with her because his mother is at the door and wants to serve them breakfast; as they frantically position themselves in a loving pose, Margaret is rudely reminded of what happens to a man’s body when he wakes up in the morning. Some of the amusement is balanced with one or two touching moments, as when Margaret lies in bed and tells Andrew facts about herself. I won’t rattle off a list, but I will say that she isn’t as immune to character attacks as she makes herself out to be.
But for every decent scene, there are at least three others that aren’t very good at all. There’s a subplot, for example, involving a character named Ramone (Oscar Nuñez), who seems to do a little bit of everything in this small Alaska town. When he’s not a caterer, he’s a minister. And when he’s not a minister, he’s a shop owner. And when he’s not a shop owner, he’s a male stripper. We know he’s a male stripper because Grace and Annie decide to take Margaret to one of his shows as a surprise. Is there any such thing as Amateur Night at a Chippendale club? There’s also a painfully unfunny scene in which Margaret goes off into the woods and spots Annie performing a chanting ritual around a fire pit; Margaret, encouraged to chant along, performs a profanity-laced rap solo.
Tension mounts when, on a whim, Andrew’s family decides that his wedding should take place during his visit, specifically on Annie’s birthday. Can Andrew and Margaret go through with it knowing it’s a sham? Will Margaret be able to reconcile her growing feelings for Andrew? Will Annie be able to alter her old wedding dress to accommodate Margaret’s less-than-ample breasts? As I already said, I knew the answers to these questions before entering the theater, and I’m sure most audiences are in the exact same situation. I shouldn’t criticize a film for achieving exactly what it wanted to achieve, but really, this romantic comedy formula is getting very old. No, “The Proposal” isn’t an all-out bad film, but it is grossly unoriginal, and it’s filled with jokes that are amusing but hardly hilarious.
– Chris Pandolfi (www.GoneWithTheTwins.com)