Monday, July 5, 2010

"The Proposal" (2009)

Starring Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds and Betty White
Written by Peter Chiarelli
Directed by Anne Fletcher

I'm not the hugest fan of Sandra Bullock.  Her voice can be grating, and her looks can be a bit too sharp for my tastes.  Still, it's hard to deny that she's a charismatic performer, and when paired with someone like Ryan Reynolds, the results can be fun and charming, if utterly predictable.

Bullock stars as Margaret Tate, a hard-assed book editor at a major publishing company in New York.  Her long-suffering assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) gets the shock of his life when Margaret tells their bosses that they've gotten engaged.  Margaret, it seems, is actually Canadian, and has managed to screw up her Visa badly enough that the United States is ready to deport her.  She makes up the engagement with Andrew as a last-ditch effort to stay and keep her job. 

Andrew is, of course, rather flabbergasted by this, but Margaret practically blackmails him into doing it.  An immigration investigator, Gilbertson (Denis O'Hare) is assigned to the case to determine whether or not the engagement is a fraud.  He warns Margaret and Andrew of the consequences if he discovers so, but they stick to their guns.  However, this means that Margaret must accompany Andrew on his trip home to Alaska for his grandmother's 90th birthday. 

There, they meet Andrew's parents, Grace and Joe (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson) and his grandmother, Annie (Betty White) and his ex-girlfriend Gertrude (Malin Akerman).  Andrew and Margaret must use this weekend to learn as much about each other as possible so they can pass an immigration interview with Gilbertson that will determine the outcome of their case.  And although neither of them expects it to happen, as they spend time with each other and with Andrew's family, they start to develop feelings for each other.  Things are complicated when Andrew's family begins to insist that they get married right away, and the arrival of Gilbertson at the family home in Alaska.

If "Independence Day" is the perfect example of a summer blockbuster, then "The Proposal" might be the perfect example of the romantic comedy.  It's lightweight, with broad characters and inoffensive humor.  It suffers from a lot of the problems of the romantic comedy genre, not the least of which is that the movie's idea of "love" seems to happen a bit too quickly and conveniently.  One could argue that Andrew and Margaret loved each other long before the events of the film, and are only just realizing it, but the movie doesn't really present it this way.  Indeed, we are explicitly told that things changed for the both of them when they kiss for the first time in front of Andrew's family.  And at the end, when Andrew goes through the typical romantic comedy guy chases down the girl and makes a bold, public declaration of his love, he tells her flat-out that he downright loathed her just a few days earlier.  It's tempered by the fact that Andrew says he's proposing to her so that he can date her, but that simply feels like too little too late since he already said he was in love with her.

"The Proposal" really succeeds through the able cast that can really sell the script's funnier moments.  Ryan Reynolds is a master of awkward silences and sarcasm, and Bullock is quite capable of putting on an air of bitchy superiority.  A lot of her gags involve a fish out of water comedy where the big city girl can't quite handle small-town life.  Most of these are fairly obvious, but she plays them well.  The best parts involve Reynolds and Bullock interacting together, and the personality clashes.  Romantic comedies live or die by the chemistry between the leads, and thankfully Bullock and Reynolds have it.  The two of them are better able to sell their characters feelings for each other than the script is.

Betty White steals the show as Grandma Annie.  But then, that's what Betty White does, always.  Her recent explosion in popularity, topped by a hysterical turn as host on "Saturday Night Live" is well-deserved.  White's ability to inject wit and wisdom into any situation is put to excellent use here.  Her delivery during a scene where she explains the 'magical powers' of a special blanket is hilarious, as is her facilitation of the climax. 

Special credit should also go to Oscar Nunez of "The Office," who plays Ramon, a crazed character who seems to play nearly every role in the film that could've been taken by a number of nameless, silly townsfolk.  Instead, Ramon is a waiter, a shopkeeper, a priest and even an exotic dancer.  The film could simply have cast multiple characters, but having all these disparate roles played by a single character gives the film that little extra bit of absurdity that it needs.

I don't typically give a lot of credit to romantic comedies.  Too many of them are cloying, throwing as much sugar onto the romantic part as possible without much comedy.  It's a genre that's often more like cinematic junkfood, empty calories that are easily mass-produced and don't leave much of an impression.  The atrocious works of the utterly untalented Freddie Prinze Jr, for example.  But occasionally you get one that works, usually the result of having talented performers and filmmakers coming aboard.  As an aside, I was surprised to see the film was executive produced by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the screenwriters responsible for lots of recent blockbusters like "Transformers" and "Star Trek." 

So "The Proposal" is one of the better romantic comedies I've seen recently, certainly besting ones I've watched such as "The Bounty Hunter."  It could use a bit more depth in the character and drama department, and most of the story beats are predictable from the outset, but the gags are pretty funny and so is the cast.  Speaking of gags, be sure to watch the immigration interviews in the end credits, as some of the films best moments are there.