Did you ever notice that the best romantic comedies are often the cynical ones?
Look at those from the classic era. Something like The Awful Truth – in which Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a perfect couple who happen to be in the midst of a divorce – even had cynicism dripping from its title. It Happened One Night, Roman Holiday, the 1940 version of The Philadelphia Story. All of these battle-of-the-sexes farces spend most of their time on the battlefield.
For a while, The Proposal does too. Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a top New York City book publisher who has her life planned down to the last detail. She even plans how her loyal assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) should make her plans.
This life of control comes to a halt when the United States threatens to deport Margaret, who happens to be a closet Canadian. She orders Andrew to marry her, he reluctantly agrees and we’re on our way.
The early scenes use the workplace setting to tweak our concept of marriage. The joke is that Margaret and Andrew are so intertwined via e-mails and voicemails and coordinating calendars that they might as well already be married. At its most cynical, The Proposal envisions marriage as a business contract, with the husband and wife as uneasy, distrustful partners.
Bullock and Reynolds make the most of this uneasiness, especially in a scene in which they’re asked to share their (non-existent) proposal story. Put on the spot, they take turns concocting an impromptu tale that’s laced with subtle digs at each other.
It’s not a classic scene, by any means, but it’s still smart and sharp, especially compared with the silliness that follows. In order to prove to immigration officials that they’re actually in love, Andrew and Margaret fly to Alaska to meet his family, where all sorts of forced wackiness – archly staged by director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) – ensues.
Bullock, a remarkably resilient actress, has endured many humiliations in her career. The Proposal adds a few more: a scene in which she must save a dog from a marauding eagle; another in which she performs a tribal dance with Betty White; a third in which she’s taken to a performance by the town’s male erotic dancer (Oscar Nunez, enduring his own humiliation).
Notice that Reynolds isn’t in any of these scenes. I’m not claiming he is the key to the picture’s success, but that any success The Proposal was going to have depended on its stars being on the screen at the same time. And preferably bickering.