We are quick to criticize formulism in these parts — we decry the lack of subversion, the laziness, and the predictability inherent in most studio offerings. And while I generally subscribe to that newsletter (The Seething Art of Hating the Formulaic in Three Easy Steps), I don’t begrudge romantic comedies for falling in line. Or at least the studio offerings, where there’s little choice in the matter. For the sake of marketability and the creation of a decent trailer, a certain studio-mandated template must be followed: An unlikely pair separated by circumstance or a furious hatred of one another overcome certain obstacles, fall in love in the second act, and have their relationship endangered in the third act before reuniting via impassioned speech, preferably in view of a roomful of extras poised to applaud the exchange of saliva.
I’m not suggesting it’s easier to come up with a novel concept and write the hell out of it for Fox Searchlight and the opportunity to be seen at Sundance and, possibly, break even on DVD, but trying to write a romantic comedy for a big studio is tantamount to writing the great American novel on a typewriter with seven missing keys, including the “S.” And assuming you can even abide by a studio romantic comedy in the first place (not a popular genre around here), whether they succeed or fail rests entirely on a screenwriter’s ability to work within those limitations and the onscreen chemistry between the two romantic leads. A good romantic comedy — and they’re a very rare breed — overcomes the limitations, makes the contrivances work for it, and wins you over in spite of your wary skepticism.
For the most part, that’s exactly what The Proposal does. It’s the rare rom-com that doesn’t feel as though it began with a pitch, a title, and the two leads before the script was even written. Granted, it’s still constrained by that formulism, but there’s a lot of life going on in those gaps. Much of that magic comes in the form of Ryan Reynolds, who has finally gotten a role that not only takes advantage of his physique, but more importantly, his droll sarcasm and the ability to naturally deliver a cutting remark with impeccable timing — it’s a heady combination of the likable Reynolds from Definitely, Maybe and the romantic version of the wry, deadpan Reynolds in Blade Trinity. And though it’s the unlikeliest of pairs, there’s an actual easy-going and sweet chemistry between Reynolds and Sandra Bullock (sans snort!), who finally gets to express what many of us have known lies beneath her gauzy button-cute, dewy façade: Her inner, simpering bitch.
In The Proposal, Bullock plays Margaret Tate, or The Devil Wears Prada’s Miranda Priestly lite, an editrix ruling over a book publishing company with a three-ply aluminum foil fist: A frosty, tyrannical veneer that’s easily punctured. Faced with the prospect of being deported back to Canada and losing everything she’s sacrificed to gain her position, Margaret blackmails her put-upon assistant, Andrew, into marrying her to save both her job and his. He agrees, but only by turning the tables on her and taking away her position of control. However, an INS investigation led by Dennis O’Hare’s Mr. Gilbertson forces the couple to visit Andrew’s family in Sitka, Alaska over the weekend and carry the sham to its logical extreme, which also requires convincing Andrew’s family that the impending marriage is genuine.
Having forced the couple together through the use of the tired green-card marriage gimmick, screenwriter Pete Chiarelli smartly pushes the plot device to the background and allows the two leads to develop their relationship. It’s here — safely tucked between scenes designed for the trailers — that The Proposal rises above most romantic comedies. The bickering, which has considerably more bite (and humor) than you’d expect from a Sandra Bullock movie, slowly evolves into familial banter. And despite the manufactured contrivances that box them in, the inevitable romantic relationship that blossoms feels natural, derived in large part from the screwball nature of the writing (or at least the closest thing you’re going to find to screwball in 2009). It’s not Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, of course, but there’s more snappy energy in the couple’s quick-witted repartee than a thousand Matthew McConaughey/Kate Hudson vehicles combined.
But while the chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds pulls you in, it’s Betty White that closes the deal, takes your money, and fucks your husband. White is gold, y’all. She’s not the one-dimensional foul-mouthed rapping Granny we’ve all grown accustomed to: She’s a solid source of comedy in the film, but as the 90-year-old Grammy, she’s also the no-nonsense heart of The Proposal. You understand exactly why Margaret falls in love with Andrew’s family, because — thanks to Betty, and to some extent, Mary Steenburgen’s inviting mother — <>you fall in love with Andrew’s family, too.
Granted, there’s still a lot of forced nuttiness in The Proposal, embodied best in Oscar Nunez’s (“The Office”) hardest-working man in Sitka character, a running joke that fails as often as it works, as well as a dog that’s susceptible to swooping eagles, a gag that’s likely to pull a big laugh out of you that you’ll feel ashamed about the next day. But even the easy gags aren’t cheap — despite the much-talked about age-differential, there are no stupid cougar jokes; the toilet humor is nil; and — at least to this critic — it’s refreshingly free from the dominating Apatowian humor, a throwback — at least for one weekend — all the way to 2006.
Still, The Proposal is not likely to win over anyone opposed to romantic comedies — it borrows every rom-com convention in the book ( Joseph M. Caracciolo’s Five Steps to a Financially Successful Romantic Comedy), but director Anne Fletcher (the risible 27 Dresses) makes the smartest choice she’s capable of: She lets the script and her cast do all the work. It’s formulaic as hel, but The Proposal is the rare film that works the formula instead of letting the formula work it.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. You can email him or leave a comment below.