Friday, June 19, 2009

The Proposal: Marry, marry, quite contrary

The Proposal (2009) • View trailer for The Proposal
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for nudity, sexual candor and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.19.09
Buy DVD: The Proposal • Buy Blu-Ray: The Proposal [Blu-ray]

Well, color me surprised.

After a career that has been spotty at best  and more recently threatened to crater completely, in the wake of misfires such as Premonition and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Dangerous  my expectations for Sandra Bullock's newest venture in the romantic comedy genre were, shall we say, minimal.
Fully aware that his much-loathed boss' sham marriage scheme has shifted the
balance of power from its norm in their office environment, the under-
appreciated and oft-abused Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) agrees to participate only
if Margaret (Sandra Bullock) dazzles him with a heartfelt proposal ... delivered
on her knees, of course.

Bullock's bad films can be blamed on a lack of directorial control; much like Will Ferrell, the actress often tries too hard with pathetic material, and winds up looking desperate. Judging by its preview, The Proposal looked like more of the same.

Well, for once the preview undersold the film in question. Thanks to Peter Chiarelli's sharp and witty script, and the firm control of director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses), The Proposal emerges as a deliciously entertaining battle of the sexes. Bullock hasn't been this good in years, and co-star Ryan Reynolds gets ample opportunity to display his deft comic timing. Indeed, he almost steals the film.

The set-up echoes classic 1930s screwball comedies, particularly those that involved bickering couples who suddenly discovered that they weren't actually married, or became estranged for some silly reason, and then spent the rest of the film arguing before deciding to tie the knot for real.

Tart-tongued, high-powered New York book editor Margaret Tate (Bullock) has a well-honed reputation as a soulless control freak whose every move is clocked by employees who scramble to look busier whenever she walks by. Margaret's impressively competent but long-suffering assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds), has put up with horrid hours and weekend sessions for three years, in the hopes of one day being promoted to editor himself.

Chances of that day ever arriving seem awfully remote, until Margaret's failure to address what she perceives as an inconsequential detail  her U.S. citizenship  finally catches up with her. Suddenly threatened with deportation to her native Canada, which of course would mean losing her job, Margaret concocts an unlikely "solution" by fabricating a relationship with Andrew: a supposedly clandestine affair that she'll now be happy to consummate with a public marriage.

Andrew, surprised to say the least, reluctantly goes along with the scheme when Margaret dangles the promise of that long-desired editorship.

Unfortunately, the situation rapidly escalates beyond their control when a suspicious immigration official (Denis O'Hare, wonderfully officious as Gilbertson) threatens to expose the engagement as a fraud. Needing to lend credence to the ploy, Margaret gets maneuvered into joining Andrew for a weekend family reunion: an affair ostensibly organized to celebrate Andrew's grandmother's birthday, which now serves as the perfect opportunity to announce the pending nuptials.

Because it's his job, Andrew knows every little detail about his boss. The irony is that Andrew would have no trouble proving the depth of his 'relationship' to Gilbertson.

But she knows nothing about Andrew, starting with the fact that he grew up in Sitka, Ala., site of the family gathering. Meeting his devoted parents, Grace and Joe (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson), and Grandma Annie (Betty White) gives Margaret the first uneasy feeling that her little scheme could hurt or disappoint lots of people, an impression that only gets worse when everybody in Sitka  including Andrew's long-ago girlfriend (Malin Akerman)  is so warm and welcoming.

And that's the beauty of Chiarelli's script. Although laced with plenty of hilarious sight gags and tart one-liners, he never loses track of the people in the equation. We're initially only in Andrew's corner, wanting him to somehow escape this mess, but our sympathies rapidly extend to his family ... and then, as she slowly thaws and reveals her vulnerable side, even to Margaret.

I'm reminded of 2007's Dan in Real Life, which employs an equally isolated location and a similarly unlikely premise  mopey widower falls in love with his brother's girlfriend  to build an unexpectedly warm and poignant relationship dynamic from a foundation of witty dialogue and well-timed bits of physical business. The Proposal employs the same formula, with equal success; the result is both funny and increasingly heartwarming.

The realistic set-ups are the best, particularly those that allow Reynolds to deliver snarky remarks while Bullock executes her deliciously smoldering slow burns. Watching Margaret (who fears open water) tentatively descend a dockside ladder in heels, as Andrew gives an annoyed running commentary, is hilarious. Margaret's efforts to evade the ubiquitous sunlight, during her first night in Alaska, is equally amusing.

The celebrated starkers encounter  sadly, somewhat over-exposed by the preview  is a stitch, particularly with respect to the way both Andrew and Margaret try to shake off the "unpleasant" experience that both obviously found ... enticing.

On the other hand, Fletcher occasionally lapses into stupid slapstick during the story's more contrived, sitcom-ish moments. An encounter involving Margaret, an eagle and the Paxtons' new puppy runs on a bit too long, and a subsequent chanting interlude between Margaret and Grandma Annie is clumsy enough to bring the film to a screeching halt.

White, like Bullock, needs the firm control of an attentive director. Although Grandma Annie is, for the most part, a beguiling character  who uncorks some of the script's best zingers  her "Mother Earth" fetish is ill-advised.

Fortunately, the film has built up plenty of good will by this point, and we can excuse the sequence as a momentary lapse in judgment.

We're much more enchanted, as the story moves to its final act, by the quieter moments that slowly unite Andrew and Margaret. The most touching scene arrives the second night; it has been a squabble-filled day, and we're expecting more of the same. Instead, Margaret reveals several random personal details, with Bullock's face showing how much this moment is costing her, and how much trust she's putting in her listener.

Reynolds, in turn, allows Andrew's suspicious hostility to morph into astonishment and then respect, all with no dialogue. With the camera panned quite tightly on his features, Reynolds successfully sells the delicate moment. Indeed, both actors deliver persuasive human emotion during what becomes an incredibly tender scene: the sort of character depth that repeatedly makes this film such a pleasure.

The film builds to a perfect  and perfectly reasonable  climax, and you'll want to remain in your seats during the closing credits, as the exasperated Gilbertson finally makes good on his threat to pepper Margaret and Andrew with intimate questions about each other. It's a hilarious coda to a thoroughly delightful romantic comedy.

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