A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE PROPOSAL j
½

2009, PG-13, 107 mins.

 

Margaret: Sandra Bullock / Andrew: Ryan Reynolds / Mrs. Paxton: Mary Steenburgen / Mr. Paxton: Craig T. Nelson / Grandma Annie: Betty White / Mr. Gilbertson: Denis O'Hare / Ramone: Oscar Nunez

Directed by Anne Fletcher / Written by Pete Chiarelli

It’s a funny thing, but rom-coms have to do very little to win me over. 

Yet, why are so many incapable of pleasing me?.

My expectations of them are minimal: I simply want them to have a couple of lead actors that give amiable performances, have decent chemistry and be people that populate a story that I can credibly buy into (in other words, I want to like the characters enough to yearn them on to happiness together, at least in a story that maintains some humble veracity).  Unfortunately, too many recent examples of the genre have failed in this instance, and THE PROPOSAL – despite some of its virtues – is yet another failure. 

There are two large and unyielding problems with this film, one of which I will speak of specifically when I discuss its plot.  The first concerns the actual developed romance in the film between its two key characters, played by Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock.  In pure screwball farce fashion, these two characters absolutely loathe each other to their cores (with perhaps more resentment being initiated by Reynolds' character). Okay.  Fine.  They hate each other at first, but most romantic comedies begin in much the same manner and they develop the slowly growing chemistry between the pair, so much so that by the end of the film you believe that they have become an inseparable item.  THE PROPOSAL has one of those obligatory moments where the man discovers subtle emotional secrets and subverted pains that the woman has bravely revealed, making him rethink her in a whole new light.  Up until this point he basically perceives this woman an egomaniacal, vindictive, and ruthlessly selfish bitch.  But, when he hears her speak candidly for a mere few minutes…he...falls in love with her. 

Sorry.  Not buying it. 

For THE PROPOSAL to think that one small and fairly insignificant exchange between a man and a woman is enough to make the man fall instantly in love with her strains believability.  The film has already established that they have had a previous three year relationship during which the woman has belittled and verbally abused the man (she’s his boss), but when they have a moment of sincerity between one another, the man is so moved that he can’t think of anything else but spending the rest of his life with her.  On this level, THE PROPOSAL’s “romance” is dead on arrival: it established the characters well enough, but it never, ever makes us believe that these total polar opposites would become an inseparable, mutually adoring couple because of one honest and frank exchange.  Rom-coms – at least the best ones – work considerably harder at fostering and nurturing the love between the leads. 

The other major problem with the film is that it treacherously suffers from the “Idiot Plot Syndrome” on the basis of its premise. so much so that it becomes next-to-impossible to accept it.  The syndrome refers to “a plot in a movie containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not complete idiots.”   

Well…the plot of THE PROPOSAL is a real doosey of pure, cornball make-believe.  In the film we meet a verbally caustic, malevolent, and fiercely mean-spirited New York book editor, Margaret (played respectably by Bullock) who has a secretary…make that executive assistant…name Andrew (Reynolds).  They both exist in a state of perpetual mutual disdain.  Margaret has a major dilemma, eh: she’s a Canadian living illegally in the U.S. and her bosses have abruptly dropped a bombshell on her early in the film that – as a result of her ignoring the law and forgetting to fill out some necessary paperwork – she is to be deported and cannot work nor return to the States for at least a year.  During this meeting the hapless and somewhat unlucky Andrew comes in which culminates in an idea quickly forming in the sniveling Margaret’s head: She grabs Andrew and quickly informs her superiors that the two are to be wed, making her status in the U.S. legal.  Of course, her higher ups are somewhat surprised, but perhaps not as shocked as Andrew himself.   

Andrew confronts Margaret in private and rather sternly informs her that he will not, under any circumstances, marry her.  She responds by blackmailing her young assistant by informing him that if he does not walk down the isle with her then she will royally fire his ass.  Andrew begrudgingly agrees, seeing as he does not want to lose his job, and the pair decides to go see an immigration officer to help expedite their shotgun green card wedding.  Realizing that they are going to have to prove – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that they are a real couple on the verge of nuptials, Margaret decides to return back with Andrew to his childhood home of Sitka, Alaska (with Massachusetts and Rhode Island actually subbing for it here, and rather unrealistically) to meet his parents and family.  Routine predictability ensures when the fish-out-of water city girl that is Margaret desperately tries to acclimatize to Alaska as well as trying to make Andrew’s family believe that he will become her husband. 

THE PROPOSAL lost me the instant Bullock’s character feebly informs her bosses that she is marrying Andrew, not to mention when she coerces him to take part in her twisted and warped plans.  What makes no sense in this Idiot Plot is why Andrew - being harassed into conspiring to commit immigration fraud at the risk of fines and a prison term - would ever allow himself to be a willing participant.  Moreover, since Margaret threatened his employment for non-participation in her marriage scheme, then why wouldn’t the smart and quick witted Andrew go straight back to her superiors and inform them that he was being blackmailed into faking a marriage to her in order to secure his job?  I mean…Andrew detests this woman with a fiery passion, so why not rush right back to her bosses and file a complaint?  She would be fired and would, as a result, be out of his hair for good.  In the real world, Andrew would either have this woman canned or file a sexual harassment lawsuit against her, but since this is a rom-com on full Idiot Plot Syndromed autopilot, we are forced to believe that a free thinking and intelligent Andrew would just go along for the ride.  

Yup.  Sure.  Uh huh. 

Beyond its inane premise, THE PROPOSAL becomes so sluggishly predictable that it produced more watch checking on my part than active involvement with what was happening on screen.  Gee, I wonder if Margaret will become easily charmed with Andrew’s family?  Hmmm…I wonder if Margaret will start to appreciate and love the sense of small town communal spirit in Sitka?  Hey, I wonder if Margaret will have a small run in with a former flame of Andrew's that leads her to develop a serious guilty conscience?  And…wait a tick…I wonder if the initially icy cold fish of a woman that is Margaret will thaw out from her weekend with Andrew and his loving family to the point where she will wear down his defenses and allow him to fall in love with her?  And after they do rather quickly fall in love, I wonder if there will be a misunderstanding between them that will force them apart and reconnect them for the pre-end-credit embrace and kiss? 

Okay, sarcasm aside, THE PROPOSAL has a cookie-cutter story that is as flimsy and prosaic as they come.  Anyone with a reasonable head on his or her shoulders will know with pinpoint precision where the film is heading at every waking moment.  That in itself is not altogether the kiss of death for rom-coms (most are, in some form or another, fairly preordained), but THE PROPOSAL is so mind-numbingly formulaic with its choices, which far too often overrides some of the film’s virtues, like its fairly decent cast and affable performances.  And again, as stated, the manner with which Andrew and Margaret’s mutual worship of one another is established in such a haphazard and insipidly simplistically fashion that it all but drains out the authenticity in the film.  If you can’t sell the idea that these two actually do love one another (and they engage in a story that is so incomparably ridiculous and idiotic)…then what’s the point? 

It’s a shame, because the leads here are appealing and have a nice sense of comedic timing playing off of one another.  Bullock, now in her mid-40's, still maintains a difficult balancing act of being agelessly assured playing goofy and spirited laughs alongside sentiment that does not feel too forced or phony.  It’s also nice to see her play a woman that is such a categorically vile tempered and spiteful creation (at least early on).  She does have a nice on-screen rapport with Ryan Reynolds, who has certainly matured from his earlier comedic performances that had a certain disagreeable, self-congratulatory smugness about them (he is oftentimes more funny underplaying laughs in particular moments, as is the case with his reaction to Margaret telling her bosses that they are getting married).  His work in THE PROPOSAL is less showy and camera mugging than in some of his past forgettable comedies.  Films like this and last year’s wonderfully inspired and creative DEFINITELY, MAYBE prove that he can be leading man material. 

The other performances are a mixed bagged.  Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen play their conventional mother/father roles as…well…conventionally as possible (the film also has a subplot involving some long-standing animosity between father and son that never really feels authentic; it's more of a tacked on plot point).  Malin Akerman – an astonishingly  radiant screen presence, to be sure – plays uselessly banal part as the girlfriend that Andrew wanted to marry years ago, but got away (the film is kind of manipulative with the way it teases viewers into thinking that she will figure larger into a love triangle when she actually does not, which unavoidably leads one to question why this character is even in the film in the first place).  Lastly, we have former Golden Girl Betty White playing Andrew’s not-quite 90-year-old grandmother, who displays that she has not lost any of her adorable spunkiness or natural dry wit.  However, she does partake in the film’s single weirdest and unfunny sequence where she dresses up like a Native American shaman and performs a kooky ceremony.  Laughs were the intended reaction here, I think, but you could hear a pin drop in the theatre all through the scene. 

I think that Reynolds and Bullock have the right comic sensibilities and have a real zeal on screen together, but their talents are required in a substantially better rom-com than THE PROPOSAL.  Perhaps part of the problem is that its director, Anne Fletcher (a former dance choreographer) also made the obnoxiously dreadful 27 DRESSES, which also subverted star Katherine Heigl’s assets as an assured comedic leading lady.  Certainly, THE PROPOSAL has some of the basic requisite elements for successful screen romantic farces (like two very attractive and instantly agreeable lead actors), but the film undermines them by placing them in a low-concept, paint-by-numbers, and irksomely idiotic plot that made me scratch my head with too much contemptuous incredulity.  Its ultimate undoing is that the story never treads believable water after the first ten minutes and it never sells the romance between the characters.  There is a stark difference between liking the leads and believing that they would actually grow to care for one another.  THE PROPOSAL is a real odd amalgam of breezy and alluring stars fused with a mindlessly dumb and ill conceived script, which unavoidably results in the film being nothing more than flat, crude and blasé time killer. 

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