Friday, June 19, 2009

Sandra Bullock's formula frolic

Sandra Bullock tries to make up for lost time (three years without a picture) in "The Proposal," a romantic comedy that follows the dictates of formula so closely you wonder whether the screenwriter wasn't forced to swear a blood oath to predictability. But here's where things get tricky. There's always some pleasure in watching actors adroitly handle the demands of formula, particularly in a comedy that doesn't offer many other satisfactions. Had "The Proposal" been content to tread a screwball path toward love, it might have achieved something better than pleasing mediocrity, but the movie ultimately drowns its small supply of intelligence in a bath of soggy sentiment.

The movie's major conceit seems to have rolled off a high-concept assembly line: As ruthless publishing executive Margaret Tate, Bullock gives Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), her assistant, a preposterous order: He must marry her. A Canadian citizen on the verge of being deported for a visa violation, Margaret needs to legitimize herself in order to keep her job.

As part of the ruse, Margaret and Andrew visit his parents in Alaska, where they announce their engagement and begin the awkward journey toward love, a trip made easier by the fact that Andrew's well-heeled family resides in a sprawling mansion.

The trip to Alaska allows director Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses") to introduce the movie's secondary characters, Andrew's mom (Mary Steenburgen), his dad (Craig T. Nelson) and his feisty, foul-mouthed grandma (Betty White). These characters add a meet-the-in-laws twist to the already contrived proceedings, which include a scene in which a naked Andrew and Margaret bump into each other, causing much frantic hiding of body parts.

A small digression involves a conflict between Andrew and his dad. Dad wants Andrew to put aside his foolish publishing ambitions and take over the family business.

The script by Pete Chairelli eagerly sacrifices credibility in the service of fish-out-of-water comedy. Wouldn't a smart businesswoman know enough not wear stiletto heels on an Alaskan trip that's going to require her to climb down a ladder into the small boat that takes her to the island where Andrew's family lives?

Oh well, such are the exaggerations of entertainment. Bullock, one of the film's producers, knows how to play this kind of sour-to-sweet role. Reynolds gamely joins in. The two of them won't likely dislodge Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant from any romcom pantheon, but they're good enough to keep the movie humming. "The Proposal" probably will enjoy a brisk commercial life, but it should have done a better job hiding its contrivances, preferably under blankets of wit.

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