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Although it is obviously a big Hollywood movie, with stars galore and plenty of gorgeous scenery, The Proposal is actually a rather subtle movie. This will become clear from a close look at a small scene — a scene, in fact, without dialogue. I expect that the scene will not linger with most viewers — the first time round, anyway — but that is not its purpose. The shift in tone that it signals registers clearly enough.
Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), a driven and successful book editor, has just taken possession of a replacement phone, and discovered that she has over thirty messages to respond to. She tells her assistant that she needs a computer. He guides her to an Internet Café in the small town where Margaret is spending the weekend, and, supplying her with a stack of dimes, leaves her to fend for herself. At first she squawks half-hearted protests, but, apparently deciding that the fight isn't worth it, she tells herself that, as an intelligent woman, she can figure out the computer for herself.
Margaret slips a dime into the meter and waits for the computer to connect. This seems to take a while — for a reason that young members of the audience may not grasp — and, once again, Margaret appears to be on the verge of protest. But before she can think of anything to say, the machine connects, and she resigns herself to its slow speed. While the browser loads her page, Margaret turns her head and looks out the window, where she sees her assistant with his old girlfriend — this is his hometown — smiling at one another not unmeaningfully. Margaret's face softens, and the ghost of a genuine smile touches the corners of her mouth.
The older folks in the audiences will have recognized the whines and hisses of a dial-up modem connection, and we won't have been surprised that Margaret was about to object. That she doesn't object would be surprising, if the surprise were not immediately erased by the gentle but firm change in the film's atmosphere. For the first time, we see Margaret alone. We already know that she has been on her own since she was sixteen (when her parents died — in circumstances that, with intelligent, almost provocative tact, are never described). Margaret has coped by staying adamantly solitary. Being alone has allowed her to become the imperious monstrosity that up to this point we have found very funny.
Only later will we realize that Margaret is never brusque or in any way uncivil to her assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) for the rest of the picture. Deciding to "deal" with a dial-up modem, and then smiling to see Andrew talk easily with Gert, Margaret steps down from her lonely altitudes and rejoins the human race. She does so because she is ready, not because she is forced. And she is ready because she has been charmed, literally, by Andrew's family.
The metamorphosis occurs against the background of very high stakes. Margaret is a Canadian, and her arrogant mishandling of a visa application has condemned her to deportation — unless, of course, she can make a marriage that will pass muster with the immigration authorities. Knowing how badly Andrew wants to achieve great things in publishing, Margaret blackmails him into marrying her. This is the bad Margaret, from the beginning of the picture, a heartless careerist to whom other people's feelings are of no concern at all.
It is Margaret's idea to make opportunistic use of a bit of information that she has overheard: Andrew's grandmother is going to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. Before she learned about her immigration status, Margaret was going to tie Andrew up in the office with work over the weekend, and if that prevented him from attending the festivities, then tant pis for him. Now, however, she recognizes, with a velociraptor's acuity, the patina of reality that accompanying Andrew will confer on her marriage scheme. It is only after she proposes it that she learns that home, for Andrew, is in Sitka, Alaska.
If Margaret is going to hold onto her job, then, she will have to soil Andrew's family with a bogus wedding. You will ask why anyone in the audience should care whether Margaret keeps her job, and that's a very good question. As it happens, though, by the time we reach the Internet Café, we no longer want to see Margaret suffer. A number of finely graduated scenes have introduced us to the anxiety and loss that surround the center of her life. We have come to appreciate the glacial stoicism that maintains her rigidly impassive facial expressions. Sandra Bullock uses everything she's got to overcome our dislike of the character whom, after all, she herself has succeeded in making so supremely unlikable. Even when unlikable, though, Margaret is fascinating.
Within minutes of learning about the deportation ultimatum, we watch, spellbound, as Margaret thinks her way out of catastrophe. Once again, there is no dialogue. Words come out of Margaret's mouth, it's true, but they are vocal baffling, providing cover for her furious cogitations. This amazing sequence, which should be the making of director Anne Fletcher, is triggered by Andrew's barging in to report the fact that he has told an important caller that Margaret is "otherwise engaged." You would almost think that Ms Bullock made a study of the more lethal creatures in Jurassic Park in preparation for this scene. She makes no sudden moves. Her head very slowly turns around, looking away from the executives who have just delivered the bad news, toward Andrew, to whom — in middle of her flow of honeyed prevarication — she mimes an angry command to approach her. Andrew, as meek and clueless as a head of cattle, goes to the slaughter all unknowing. "We're getting married," Margaret toothily tells her bosses. Andrew doesn't nod; his head isn't strong enough for that. It bobs uncertainly. "Who's getting married," he says, not really asking. Astonishingly, we'll find, as we laugh at his plight, that we're on her side. May the best man win!
We also care because Ms Fletcher has had the great idea of enlisting Dennis O'Hare as Margaret's immigration gatekeeper. One of Mr O'Hare's specialties is the bureaucratic jerk who knows that he's a jerk but who also knows, and wants to remind you, that he has the power to make your life miserable, and who intends to use it. Like a matador, though, the actor excites our rage only to deflect it onto the very real Federal organization that he pretends to represent. If there is a villain in the Proposal, it is not Margaret Tate but the current successor to the old INS. If there is one question that The Proposal asks by implication, it is why anyone should lift a finger to keep Margaret Tate, "Satan's Mistress" though she be, out of the United States.
A third factor is the charm of Ryan Reynolds's Andrew. Andrew is an earnest and determined young man who also possesses an attractive sense of humor. As Margaret's dogsbody for the past three years, he knows a great deal more about Margaret than most men know about the women they love, and the moment Margaret ventures to put some weight on her connection with Andrew, it is immediately clear that he will do what he can to keep her safe and comfortable (even if he does rib her). Quite aside from the romantic jeune-premier package that Mr Reynolds brings to the production is his ability to portray precisely the degree of intelligent steadfastness that any conceivable partner of Margaret's must possess. In one scene, his face roughed up a bit by stubble, Mr Reynolds reminded me very forcibly of Henry Fonda.
The subtle glories of The Proposal could keep me writing for hours, and you might begin to doubt my sanity, so I'll limit myself to one last observation. As I've said, Margaret's expression throughout the earlier scenes of the film is one of immovable unconcern. Wearing something like an archaic smile, she takes everything in stride, even getting down on her knees on the sidewalk to propose to Andrew. (When he walks off without helping her up, we understand the justice of it, and we laugh; but Ms Bullock invests Margaret's crane-like standing-up, in high heels, with a pathetic vulnerability that, I suspect, will drain the scene of its comedy over repeated viewings.) In the middle of the film, as she is discovering Andrew's life, Margaret becomes the hyper-responsive Sandra Bullock of Speed. But at her wedding ceremony, even though her heart has started to beat again, Margaret is once again the impassive idol, and we know that she is not merely trying to look solemn. She is preparing to do something fine but also heartless and peremptory. It's a very nice symmetry.
Of the five supporting players (aside form Mr O'Hare), Betty White is certain to tickle viewers the most. Her eye-rolling, her Indian dancing, and her heart-attacking provide the movie with a great deal of its fun, helping Ms Fletcher work the sleight-of-hand of selling, as comedy, a story that (as most of the great comic stories do), has a sad heart. Also very funny, in a sort of independent-contractor manner, is Oscar Nuñez, whose Ramone plies a number of trades in Sitka. I haven't seen Mr Nuñez before, but he seems to have arrived fully-formed, like Oscar Levant or Eve Arden, ready to do his thing no matter what the movie around him is up to. Ms White and Mr Nuñez work The Proposal's vaudeville edge, making us laugh even when nothing particularly funny is going on.
As Andrew's old girlfriend, Gert, Malin Akerman is everything that's wanted; when Gert says that she has never been to New York, and that she would never want to leave her home in Alaska, Ms Akerman is absolutely convincing. Craig T Nelson and Mary Steenburgen play Andrew's not very harmonious parents with a fine sense of just how dysfunctional they can render the marriage between their characters without introducing a distraction. Again, we're not told: we're not told what accounts for the "anger" that, in their one confrontation, Grace and Joe Paxton are said (by Grace) to share.
It's news to us, as well as to Margaret, that Andrew comes from a very substantial family. As the family's estate looms into view, we may wonder for a moment if we're being treated to one of Hollywood's more sugary cupcakes: Oh, how sweet! Andrew's rich! But Ms Fletcher is not about to let the Paxtons languish in the background as so much aspirational wallpaper. Their status is the very thing that opens Margaret's eyes. That she is marrying into the "Kennedys of Alaska" makes her pay a lot more attention to Andrew and his family than she would have done if his background had been as lackluster, say, as Rebecca Bloomwood's, in Confessions of a Shopaholic. Had Joan Cusack and John Goodman been Andrew's parents, we might have expected Margaret to sniff just as haughtily as Kristin Scott Thomas's Alette Naylor.
Review after review of The Proposal has talked of its conventional, "formulaic" nature. It is certainly true that the narrative follows a familiar trajectory. But critics and audiences alike will do well to look more closely. If the DNA experts are to be believed, there is not very much "formulaic" difference between any two human beings. Upon inspection, the resemblance between The Proposal and other Hollywood romantic comedies breaks down quickly. If the story has been told before, we have still never seen anything quite like these people.
Copyright (c) 2009 Pourover Press