Proposal, The (United States, 2009)

June 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Proposal, The Poster

The Proposal is a standard-order, by-the-book romantic comedy that offers nothing remotely fresh or new while following a formula even neophytes know by heart. For some people, that's enough. All a certain segment of the audience wants from romantic comedies are familiar names, smiley faces, and hearts dotting the letter "i". Others, who are a bit more discriminating, will recognize that although The Proposal follows a paint-by-numbers script, it fails one key acid test: it doesn't sell the romance. The genre is rife with contrivances, but those shaky plot devices are easy enough to forgive, if not entirely forget, if the movie catches the viewer up in the spirit of falling in love. It's what separates the enjoyable rom-coms from the ones that strive to tickle the underbelly of mediocrity, and The Proposal does not come out on the right side of that divider.

The story twists and turns and contorts to get Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) and her administrative assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds), to Alaska where they can face his family with the "happy" news that they're engaged. This happens because Margaret, the chief editor at a Boston-based publishing house, is about to be deported to Canada because her green card application has been rejected (due in large part to her negligence). The only way for her to remain in the United States and keep her job is for her to gain a fiancé VISA. So she latches onto the nearest male - Andrew - and blackmails him into becoming engaged. But the United States government, represented by the slimy Mr. Gilbertson (Denis O'Hare), knows the couple is up to no good and plans to put them through the wringer. Margaret and Andrew have one weekend, to be spent in Alaska at the house owned by Andrew's parents (Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson), to take a crash course learning about one another while celebrating the birthday of Andrew's octogenarian grandmother, Annie (Betty White).

It should not be considered a spoiler to reveal that the two actually fall in love. After all, that's the point of the movie, and the only reason any percentage of the population will see it. (Also, once you've watched the three-minute trailer, there is no point in seeing the 108-minute film - not only does the trailer tell the whole story, but it includes all the best comedic material.) Admittedly, it might have been more enjoyable had the screenplay changed things up a little - like perhaps amplifying the relationship between Andrew and his old flame, Gertrude (Malin Akerman), and allowing Margaret to find redemption by letting him go. But that's too much to ask from an autopilot movie crafted by Anne Fletcher, whose resume includes 27 Dresses (which she directed) and The Wedding Planner (which she associate produced). No, The Proposal is all about Sandra and Ryan, and how these two start out unable to stand one another and end up kissing on the brink of happily ever-after. As a bonus, he finds his cojones and she re-discovers her humanity.

The problem, which I alluded to earlier, is that the romance falls flat. It has nothing to do with chemistry. Bullock and Reynolds don't burn up the screen, but they're nice enough together. The problem is there's really only a single scene - the one in which she reclines in bed while he lies on the floor and she reveals things about her past - in which they are given a chance to connect. On the basis of that, we're supposed to believe that three years of belittlement have been swept aside in a tide of sentiment. The movie doesn't give us enough to go on to believe that these two have fallen in love. Those who buy it will do so because the formula demands it, not because the movie has succeeded in closing the sale.

There are some funny moments, chief of which is the overhyped "nude" scene in which Margaret, fresh from the shower and wearing nothing (but with arms and hands strategically positioned so the rating can remain PG-13) collides with an equally in-the-buff Andrew. It's more amusing than laugh-aloud funny, and it's about as naughty as things can get without crossing the line into R territory. Most of The Proposal's jokes are like that in that they provoke smiles and chuckles but fail to generate any really good laughs.

The cast isn't populated by heavyweights. It has been a while since Sandra Bullock has been in the fast lane, and it's been about a decade since she was a prime romantic comedy actress. Ryan Reynolds, who showed flashes of genuine talent in Adventureland, is back to phoning it in. (Although, to be fair, his flummoxed expression when Andrew "learns" he's engaged to Margaret - which carries through more than one scene - is possibly the film's funniest element.) Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson are playing the stereotyped father/mother roles, and Betty White is pretty much exhuming her Golden Girls character. (This is not one of those roles in which she drops a string of f-bombs and other assorted profanities - something she has done on more than one occasion to get a cheap guffaw.)

My opinion of The Proposal is similar to how I felt about the not-dissimilar New in Town. The humor level in this film is a little better and the actors have a marginally higher charisma quotient, but the productions are peas in a pod. They fail to engage for similar reasons. Both Bullock (with While You Were Sleeping) and Reynolds (with Definitely, Maybe) have solidly enjoyable, derivative romantic comedy titles in their filmographies, and it would be more rewarding to investigate those than endure the regurgitated, cardboard taste of The Proposal.

Proposal, The (United States, 2009)

Director: Anne Fletcher
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Denis O'Hare, Malin Akerman, Oscar Nunez
Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli
Cinematography: Oliver Stapleton
Music: Aaron Zigman
U.S. Distributor: Touchstone Pictures
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2009-06-19
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Brief Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1