'The Proposal' Shows That a Familiar Recipe Still Works With the Right Ingredients

Touchstone Pictures

Salt Lake City Weekly | June 15, 2009
The modern Hollywood romantic comedy can only be made so many ways -- and in all likelihood, every one of them has been made already. You need a reason why the protagonists initially can't stand one another, or at least why one of them isn't on the same emotional page. You need a sparkly romantic setting, usually a big city. You need a few obstacles to throw in the way of the inevitable climactic smooch. Plus -- and it's not possible to over-state how important this is, and how often it's ignored -- you need actors the audience actually likes enough to care about whether they wind up happily ever after.

The filmmakers behind The Proposal didn't even try to find a new premise. They found something that had worked before, and changed a few of the other details. And the fact that it actually worked again says everything about the virtues of simple execution.

Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is editor-in-chief at a New York publishing house, feared and loathed by everyone she works with for her ice-queen manner. She's all about the career, but she's in danger of losing that when one silly detail -- she's Canadian, and her visa is expiring -- could make it impossible for her to work for an American company. But she has a plan: her long-time, long-suffering assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) becomes a prime candidate for an engagement-then-marriage of convenience. INS investigators will eventually test their story of true love, but first they'll have to pass the test of a long weekend with Andrew's family in Sitka, Alaska.

It doesn't take an encyclopedic knowledge of film history to recognize that The Proposal is pretty much a wholesale retread of the 1990 Andie MacDowell/Gerard Depardieu vehicle Green Card, in which MacDowell needed to be married to stay in her plush Manhattan apartment and Depardieu needed to be married to stay in the country. The Proposal's wilderness setting provides a few fish-out-of-water variables for the tried-and-true set-up of two people pretending to be in love who then fall in love for real. Bullock gets to look silly wandering through the streets of Sitka in stiletto heels, or letting what passes for a local exotic dancer (Oscar Nunez) gyrate all over her. Those who fear the sight of new ground being broken can attend safely.

The old ground, however, proves surprisingly comfortable. Reynolds -- who for most of his career has radiated smug self-absorption -- does genuinely likeable work as a guy with plenty of insecurity issues to work through. He also gets to bite off some of the sharpest lines in Pete Chiarelli's script, like suggesting people might like the witchy Margaret more if she would "stop eating children while they dream." Bullock, meanwhile, finds the sympathetic core of her flinty character, re-discovering the appeal that made her so reliable in romantic comedies since she started making them more than a decade ago. Even Betty White does nice things with the usually thankless role of the wacky granny. Director Anne Fletcher was a choreographer before transitioning to rom-coms with last year's 27 Dresses, and here she deftly choreographs the familiar plot progression. It's funnier and more charming than it seems to have any right to be.

The Proposal is assured enough when it's low-key that the ridiculous stuff -- like an eagle kidnapping a puppy, or Bullock cutting loose with a dance around a bonfire -- feels even more ridiculous. The comedy only needs to come from characters fumbling towards admitting what we already know, and the emotion only needs to come from the gracefulness of the scenes with which they open up to one another. Good meals don't result only from combinations you've never experienced; sometimes you still love a recipe you've tasted a hundred times before. All you really need are quality ingredients.


*** (three out of four stars)

Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Betty White

Rated PG-13.

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