The early portions of The Proposal, the by-the-numbers romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, are actually somewhat promising. Of course, by "promising," I mean that, despite being utterly predictable in absolutely every respect, the acting is decent, the writing competent, and the DP kept everything in focus most of the time. This may seem like faint praise, but given the state of the modern American rom-com, that places it head-and-shoulders above most of the genre.
The premise, of course, is as stale as a week-old bagel: Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a stern book editor who's going to be deported to her native Canada. She ropes her assistant, Andrew (Reynolds) into agreeing to marry her. Under pressure from a cartoonishly broad INS agent (the usually-much-better-than-this Denis O'Hare), the two jet off to spend the weekend with Andrew's family in Sitka, Alaska. The expected hijinks arising from his parents (Mary Steenbergen, Craig T. Nelson) and grandmother (Betty White) believing that they're a real couple ensue, as the plot chugs forward exactly as you'd expect.
Despite kicking off with what is, perhaps, the tiredest gag in the rom-com playbook (Reynolds fetches coffee for the boss, juggling two obviously empty cups until the time comes to bump into someone, then he covers his shirt with a cascade of latte), The Proposal does a fair job of delivering its weak goods in the first two acts. Much of this can be attributed to Reynolds, a grossly underrated comic talent who can deliver bad dialogue with such cocky finesse that one (almost) forgets that it's dreck. (As a side note, this is one of many reasons that the recent Wolverine failed utterly -- the filmmakers cast Reynolds in a role that ought to have taken full advantage of his snarky, whip-smart charm, then sewed up his lips after just a couple of lightning-short scenes.)
Bullock is fine, as she always is, and surprisingly doesn't milk humor out of falling down or tripping over something for a change. She does take a tumble off of a boat about halfway through the movie, but it's done less as a reason to laugh at her goofiness than as a transparent device to get Reynolds to put his arm around her. Her plastic-surgified face has relaxed a bit since her last film, which makes her look almost like a normal human again -- although not so much that we can ignore the 12-year age difference between her and Reynolds, an issue that the film never addresses.
But Bullock also has a way with dialogue, and when she dryly delivers a line like, "What am I allergic to? Peanuts. And the entire spectrum of human emotion" it elicits a genuine chuckle.
Somewhere around the two-thirds point in the film, however, it feels like everyone involved just sort of gave up. An intriguing character line with Andrew's father resenting him for leaving Alaska and the family business is pretty much dropped until film's end, when he just shrugs and decides that he doesn't mind anymore. Andrew's pretty, pleasant ex-girlfriend (Malin Ackerman) hangs around and then offers nothing to the story whatsover, and Steenbergen's mom is just that, The Mother, with little in the way of a developed character other than a perpetual smile and a few hugs.
Everything plunges sharply downhill with a pointless scene in which Bullock encounters White in the woods, dressed in a Native American outfit and dancing around a fire. This is supposed to be hilariously wacky, but with no set-up to explain why, exactly, the 90-year-old grandma would be wearing a headdress and chanting to the Indian gods, it merely comes off as exactly what it is -- a desperate attempt to wring comedy from an old lady, and an opportunity for Bullock to do a silly dance. Everything that follows from this point is similarly slipshod, until the movie limps to a sad, lame, stupid conclusion.
Two small moments that shine involve roles so small that they're almost cameos -- The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi as an editor summarily fired by Bullock, and Oscar Nuñez of The Office as an unlikely stripper at an impromptu bachelorette party. As with the presence of Reynolds, both actors elevate the slim material briefly, but they can't save a movie as poorly executed as this one.
[My seatmate for the screening, Mike Russell, shares his views in the Oregonian, kicking off with an observation that I chose to leave out of this review because I was already pretty wordy. But just so I can say, "Oh yeah, and this, too" -- read his review here.]