Matrimony baloney

The Proposal

Nice kneepads.

Nice kneepads.

Rated 2.0

The Proposal is formula filmmaking at its coldest, rattled off mechanically by people who show little faith in their own formula, and even less respect for their audience. It’s supposedly about two phonies (one slightly sympathetic, the other firmly not) posing as lovers, but those characters aren’t nearly as phony as the movie that tells their story. The fact that The Proposal boasts two likable stars and a trio of seasoned pros in the supporting cast only makes it harder, not easier, to take.

Ryan Reynolds plays Andrew Paxton, personal assistant to Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock, also credited as executive producer). Margaret is editor in chief at a big-time New York publishing house, and Andrew’s “assitant” relationship is decidedly impersonal; Margaret is a contender for worst boss ever, as vicious and needle sharp as the 4-inch heels on her Italian shoes. When she stalks into the office, workers a hundred yards away turn off the ESPN Web site, shove their magazines aside and try to look busy, terrified of drawing her baleful attention. We first see her hissing into her cell phone, ruthlessly cajoling an unseen author into agreeing to a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey.

There, in a nutshell, is the problem with Pete Chiarelli’s script: The Proposal takes place in a universe where a writer has to be browbeaten into appearing on Oprah.

This phone conversation is the only evidence we get that Margaret is the ace book editor she’s cracked up to be; otherwise all we see is a mean, coldhearted bitch who fires underlings without tact or compassion and turns her workplace into a seething snake pit. And we have to believe that Margaret is good at her job. Otherwise, when she runs into immigration problems, her company would leap at the chance to send her packing back to her native Canada.

Again, in Chiarelli’s universe, it’s only natural that Margaret is desperate to avoid being deported to the third world hellhole of Toronto. Vamping frantically, she proudly announces that she’s about to be married to a U.S. citizen. And the first man her gimlet eye falls upon is the helpless, harried Andrew.

Margaret blackmails Andrew into going along with the charade. Then, despite the malign misgivings of a suspicious immigration agent (Denis O’Hare), they are off to break the news to Andrew’s family up in Sitka, Alaska (actually coastal Massachusetts; if you think this Hollywood gang would get within two thousand miles of Alaska, you’re crazy). There, Andrew’s mother (a sweet Mary Steenburgen), father (stolid Craig T. Nelson) and grandmother (Betty White, peppery as ever) welcome Margaret with open arms, even though Andrew has told them for three years that she’s “Satan’s mistress” and (he tells us) they urge him to quit “every day.”

We know, even before the cashier gives us the change for our tickets, how all this is going to end. In The Proposal’s cynical calculus, we know that Margaret isn’t really as hardhearted as she appears, because she’s played by Bullock. Andrew isn’t really a spineless weasel deceiving his family and risking a felony to advance his career because, hey, it’s Ryan Reynolds. These two mis-mates will supposedly fall in love, because that’s what we supposedly want. Bullock and Reynolds might have made it work—just barely—if the script’s contrivances didn’t undo them. In one bedroom scene, they have a conversation that’s nicely played for a while, until it devolves into that tired cliché, a singalong to a dusty pop tune they both love.

Director Anne Fletcher puts the cast through their paces with forced heartiness, but gives us time to wonder why Andrew can’t wind up with his winsome ex-girlfriend Gertie (Malin Akerman, wasted in a movie with room for only one glamour girl under 50). Even the barista who sells Andrew his daily lattes (Alicia Hunt) seems like a better match. Alas, it cannot be; neither Akerman nor Hunt is the star here (or the executive producer).

The Proposal tends to give “chick flicks” a bad name. Certainly not as foul as the name The Hangover gave to “guy flicks,” but given what we know these stars and this supporting cast can do with the right material, in its way, it’s more disappointing.