I so badly wanted to be wrong about The Proposal. When you see the trailer, it's clearly a dopey formulaic romantic comedy in which every plot point and minor story progression can be accurately predicted, sight unseen. But then they posted this really amusing thing on Funny or Die, and I reconsidered. Maybe they were up to something slyer than that.
The opening scenes are hopeful; the story begins in New York City, where Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) works tirelessly and diligently as the executive assistant to book publisher Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock). Margaret is a feared psychotic dragon lady in the Meryl Streep/Devil Wears Prada mode; Andrew, the faithful assistant, tolerates her impossible moods and ridiculous demands in hopes of a career boost.
The office shenanigans of the supporting players (save for the invaluable Aasif Mandvi of The Daily Show) are too broad and sitcomy, but this opening sequence works--director Anne Fletcher and her actors have a good sense of pace, and even though most of their dialogue is pretty limp, they speed through it with such zip and crackerjack timing, my hopes were genuinely lifted. Don't get me wrong, it ain't His Girl Friday. But it plays.
Margaret, a Canadian, discovers that her visa has expired and, because of a minor violation, she's about to be deported. In desperation, she claims that her and Andrew have fallen in love and are to be married, so that should solve her little crisis; she gets him to go along by explaining that if she's out of a job, so is he. When they visit the immigration offices, an agent (Denis O'Hare) smells a green card marriage, so the pair decides that she'll accompany Andrew on a weekend visit to his family in Alaska, and use the time to learn everything they need to know for their grueling interview. Hijinks ensue, etc.
The film's major structural problem is that it crash and burns when it slows down. Once they get to Alaska, where his family lives on a glorious waterfront home, it slows to a crawl, and the set-ups become so blatantly obvious (no one in a movie just mentions, for no reason, not to let the dog out; the circumstances that put them naked in a room together are beyond credible) that they're painful to watch. And speaking of obvious: you might find this hard to believe, but these two attractive people, even though they hate each other and are just pretending to be in love... well, I'd hate to spoil it!
Fletcher (who also helmed 27 Dresses) clearly doesn't trust her material (and I don't blame her), but the solution of underscoring each moment with Aaron Zigman's pushy, vanilla score does more harm than good; every serious scene has sad-bastard strings and piano, while the comic sequences have music constantly plink-plink-plunking away underneath to assure us that what we're watching is funny. Overscoring is a complaint I seem to be registering more and more frequently these days; colorless comedies tend to be the worst offenders.
On top of its many other offenses, The Proposal, with its contrived, only-in-the-movies storyline, commits the cardinal sin of taking itself too seriously. Craig T. Nelson plays Andrew's father as if he's auditioning for the road company of The Great Santini; their wet napkin of a subplot is the movie's biggest drag. Malin Akerman gets stuck playing the dullest "other woman" in recent movie memory; her character provides so little friction or contrast that, in retrospect, I'm not even sure why she's there. Mary Steenburgen and Betty White both have some nice moments, but these are roles either talented actress could play in her sleep.
However, Bullock and Reynolds, whose filmographies are hit-and-miss at best, both acquit themselves nicely in these roles; if sheer chemistry and commitment were enough to sustain a picture, they might have had something. Reynold's well-sprung comic timing has rarely been put to better use--his charisma is the real deal. Bullock, to her credit, bothers to create a character and see it through, and when she's trapped in a bit that isn't working (like the odd scene where she goes chanting and dancing in the woods with White), she still goes all the way with it. Even when the editor undercuts them (as in the long, unfortunate fade at the end of the nighttime scene when they finally start to connect), they still come out of this one smelling pretty good.
But oh, this screenplay. You can all but hear the mechanisms of the tired plot creaking into place in the third act; it's not just predictable, it's lazy. Early in the film, Bullock says they got engaged after dating for a year, while a big climactic moment, Reynolds says it was six months. You keep waiting for this discrepancy in their stories to be a plot point, for the other shoe to drop, and then you realize it's not going to happen--it's just a continuity error. Nelson's actions leading up to the wedding are (to put it mildly) inexplicable, the extras at the wedding overact to a point of distraction (or self-parody, I couldn't decide which), and then they trot out the most trite and obvious third-act crisis imaginable--which they then have the nerve to try and act clever about. Fail.
The Proposal isn't altogether bad--its stars are engaging, and there are occasional sequences (like Bullock firing Mandvi, or the Reynolds' welcome home party) that are well-constructed and actually pay off. But when you see Bullock or Reynolds or White in interviews, or in that clever Funny or Die video, you know that they're smarter than this kind of formula drivel. They're playing down to us; they're better than this movie, but so are we.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.