Had “The Proposal” tipped its hand immediately as a Hallmark Channel goo-fest from the get-go, that would have been bad enough, but for a movie to start out so smart and prickly only to descend to those sticky depths is even more annoying.
Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are a delight to behold as two enemies who are forced to pretend to be in love, but the movie isn’t smart enough to figure out how to get them together without taking the kind of disastrous detour that will make viewers either throw up their hands in despair or get out their handkerchiefs.
Bullock stars as Margaret Tate, a hard-charging book editor of the type not seen since Joan Crawford’s bulldozing boss in “The Best of Everything.” This is the kind of woman whose appearance in the office prompts the entire floor of her building to instant-message each other with warnings about her imminent presence. Despite her seemingly lower-48-states pronunciation of words like “dollar” and “sorry,” however, it turns out that Margaret is Canadian and that her visa is about to expire.
Not wanting to lose her job to the underling she just fired, Margaret presses her harried executive assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her so that she can get a green card. Immigration agent Gilbertson (Tony-winner Denis O’Hare) is suspicious of the arrangement, but Andrew puts up a good front, knowing that Margaret’s continuing presence at the publishing house is his only ticket to becoming an editor himself.
To make their engagement seem more convincing, Margaret accompanies Andrew to beautiful Sitka, Alaska — the postcard-picturesque seaside community is the movie’s third star — for the 90th birthday of his grandmother (Betty White). Even though Andrew has apparently complained about Margaret for years — granny asks if she goes by “Margaret” or “Satan’s Mistress” — his mom (Mary Steenburgen) and Dad (Craig T. Nelson) seem fairly nonplussed by the news that their son is marrying his boss.
So far, so good. But then we find out that Margaret was orphaned at age 16, and she’s swept away by all the affection shown her by Andrew’s family, and he’s got ongoing daddy issues because he went off to New York rather than running the family businesses, and suddenly “The Proposal” stops being any fun at all. Classic screwball comedies knew how to get antagonistic lovers to fall for each other without having to resort to bathos; one wants to send first-time screenwriter Pete Chiarelli to an all-day Howard Hawks film festival.
There’s a lot of heterosexual privilege on display in “The Proposal” — foreign-born men and women in same-sex relationships with U.S. citizens often find themselves deported to their home countries and have no legal standing to fight to stay; with the Uniting American Families Act making its way through Congress, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Margaret’s career obstacles.
Emerging unscathed from all this are Bullock and Reynolds, whose snipe-y early scenes crackle with dark wit. (They also have an accidental naked collision that’s a perfect little physical comedy moment.) Like many relationships, however, their initial chemistry can’t stand up to outside circumstances. In the case of “The Proposal,” those circumstances are known simply as “the script.”