*½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Malin Akerman, Betty White
screenplay by Peter Chiarelli
directed by Anne Fletcher
by Bryant Frazer Reviewing a romantic comedy can feel a bit like criticizing a kitten. So what if the feline puked in your slippers? What cat lovers generally want is something that will curl up in their lap, purr like nobody's business, and maybe give off a little heat on a cold winter's night. Complaining that the hungry little fuzzball won't fetch your slippers, can't guard your house, and bears no singular distinguishing marks or characteristics comes across as a tad churlish.
The Proposal is like that kitten. In general, those who go to see it aren't going to care that it's a Meet the Parents knock-off that doesn't spend enough time on character to lend one scintilla of originality to its stale redemption drama or lazy fish-out-of-water antics. They just know that it stars Sandra Bullock as Margaret, a high-powered Manhattan editor who puts her assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), the earnestly competent underling who loathes her, through the wringer by coercing him into marrying her, which will save her from a work-visa debacle that's threatening to send her back to Canada. It's understood that the two will immediately take off for Palin country, where it turns out Andrew's Alaskan family runs a thriving retail empire, and fake their way through a long and ostensibly hilarious weekend that culminates in the wedding itself. What's more, the average viewer will take great comfort in his or her expectations--that Andrew will eventually crack through Margaret's tough-bitch exterior to access the emotional lobster meat underneath, and that the two will fall in love for real, in spite of themselves--being met. In other words, the target audience will find that it goes down easy. If this stuff makes me want to vomit into my slippers, well, that's my problem.
The line from Bullock's supporters is that she's an impressive physical comedian, and I'll grant that she has decent comic timing and seems unafraid of striking the occasional awkward, mildly unflattering pose. Where she fails utterly is in showing us the fearsome, tough-as-nails careerist the film's script alludes to repeatedly. She is, always and forever, Sandra Bullock, and over the course of this film she manages an untaxing transformation from a snooty caricature to a sweet one, never revealing the skills, drive, or genuine intelligence it takes for a real woman to make it to the top of her profession. That may be just as well. The people who made The Proposal a $160-million North American box-office hit don't care that Bullock acts more like a lonely workaholic than like a boss from Hell. If the character were stronger, it might be harder to swallow her abject humiliation once she finally melts completely in front of her co-star, turning this erstwhile office superwoman into merely another in a long line of needy, compliant girlfriend characters populating too many Hollywood love stories.
Reynolds proves an amusing straight man, spending most of the film in affectless, reactive mode to whatever self-absorbed chatter is pouring out of Bullock's mouth. And it's nice to see Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson getting work as Andrew's mom and dad, while Betty White does her Betty White thing as a mildly ribald, truth-talking Granny. But there's also something depressing about seeing everyone go through their paces, trotting out mind-numbing variations on the same "kooky" and "touching" riffs that tend to be recycled over and over again for this sort of movie. The less said the better, for instance, about the scene where White dresses up in tribal garb and dances in the woods as Bullock performs a karaoke version of "Get Low." Another moment where Bullock sings a few bars of "It Takes Two" raises the question: Is it supposed to be funny by default when white performers imitate black ones?
I was amused, however, by the film's matter-of-fact depiction of the New York book world as a milieu for rich white people working for other rich white people--once we learn that Andrew comes from Alaskan money, it makes perfect sense that he works a lower-rung job in the publishing business. Margaret's callousness credentials are upped in the first act through her summary firing of editor Bob Spaulding (Mumbai-born Aasif Manvi), one of the few dark-skinned people in sight of director Anne Fletcher's camera. I'd be tempted to call that an incisive observation if it weren't also so clearly incidental; one of the last industrial preserves that's as lily-pale as book publishing is, of course, Hollywood filmmaking.
Pretty much everything else in The Proposal is absolute bullshit, from the overextended Starbucks product placement in the opening reel to the final-scene notion that Margaret needs a man to show her what's good for her. While the bulk of the film is set in Alaska, it was really shot in Massachusetts, with the result that Andrew's isolated hometown of Sitka looks instead like a New England tourist trap. (That mountain landscapes are digitally plastered onto the background of many shots only amplifies the ersatz atmosphere of the whole story.) And the film's big coup de grâce, its comic centrepiece, is basically the most awkwardly-staged nude scene in cinema history, as screenwriter Peter Chiarelli (a former studio executive who obviously manufactured this stuff, Frankenstein-style, out of bits and pieces of other films) stops the story dead by contriving to get both Reynolds and Bullock innocently out of their clothes. Props to Fletcher for exposing her two leads in the same frame, even if their naughtiest bits aren't visible, but demerits for failing to find something even mildly sensual in the accidental coupling. Our not-yet-lovers react like 12-year-olds, alarmed at their sudden proximity to each other's cooties. Not for a second does this movie entertain the notion of actual sexual attraction--or, for that matter, convey anything approximating actual human feelings.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Blu-ray Disc version of The Proposal, letterboxed to 2.40:1 and encoded in the MPEG-4/AVC format, is fine as far as these things go. The film has a generally soft, low contrast look that will be familiar to anyone who spends much time watching American romcoms. A very fine grain structure becomes slightly more visible in interiors and darker shots but is never obtrusive. The image can appear a mite smeary and undefined in darker shots, such as the scene where Margaret first opens up to Andrew as she lies in bed and he on the floor, their faces gone orange in a room apparently lit by flickering firelight. The primary audio track is an English 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix, which certainly gets the job done, although there's not a lot going on in the surround field except some of the instrumentation for composer Aaron Zigman's score, sound effects for outdoors environments, and a hint of room ambiance for the scene in which actor Oscar Nunez strips on stage to Frankie Goes to Hollywood in a small club.
Extras begin with a ho-hum yak-track featuring Fletcher and Chiarelli wherein they talk about locations, draw attention to the visual-effects backdrops that put Alaska's mountains behind the Massachusetts location, and too often simply explain, out loud, what's happening up there on the screen, like we're morons. (Improbably, Chiarelli claims that Bullock gave him character notes that encouraged him to make Margaret nastier and less sympathetic in the final film than she was in his original script--that struck me as an odd thing to say, considering her character never seems especially vicious.) The pair returns to offer optional commentary on an alternate ending (7 mins.), presented in HD but without any visual effects in place, that's even sillier than anything in the finished film. It takes place with Margaret on an airplane and Andrew on the ground below, desperately relaying messages to her through surly flight attendant Niecy Nash (from "Reno 911!"), who appears nowhere else in the film. Optional audio commentary is also selectable for three deleted scenes (totalling 7 mins., encoded in HD with timecode visible in the letterbox bars) that are utterly disposable save for the rudimentary lessons they offer in screenwriting and film editing. Finally, there's "Set Antics" (7 mins.), combining 16x9 digital video B-roll with letterboxed 35mm outtakes designed to demonstrate what a great time everyone had on the set, including faux trash-talking from Fletcher, Mandvi chatting with his co-stars, and lots of impromptu wiggle-dancing from Bullock and Reynolds.
The disc is rounded out with HD MPEG-2 previews for the painful-looking John Travolta/Robin Williams comedy Old Dogs and the heart-warming Robert De Niro vehicle Everybody's Fine ("A journey he never expected to make ... became exactly what his family needed!"). The keepcase also contains a Digital Copy of The Proposal on DVD. Originally published: October 20, 2009.