*The Proposal (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The modern Hollywood romantic comedy can only be cooked up so many ways, and we've likely seen them all. You need a reason why the protagonists initially can't stand one another, or at least aren't on the same emotional page. You need a sparkly romantic setting, usually a big city. You need a few obstacles to delay the inevitable climactic smooch. Plus, you need actors the audience actually likes enough to care whether or not they wind up happily ever after.
The filmmakers behind The Proposal didn't even try to find a new premise for their rom-com. They found something that had worked before and changed a few details. The fact that it works again says everything about the virtues of simple execution.
Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is editor-in-chief at a New York publishing house, feared and loathed for her ice-queen manner. She's all about the career, but one detail — she's Canadian, and her visa is expiring — could make it impossible for her to work here.
Fortunately, she has a plan: She enlists her long-suffering assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) for an engagement-then-marriage-of-convenience. Immigration officials will eventually test their story of true love, but first they'll have to pass the test of a weekend with Andrew's family in Sitka, Alaska.
It doesn't take much film knowledge to recognize The Proposal is basically a retread of the 1990 Andie MacDowell/Gerard Depardieu vehicle Green Card, in which the two needed to marry so she could stay in her Manhattan apartment and he could stay in the U.S.
In this incarnation, The Proposal's wilderness setting adds a few fish-out-of-water variables to the setup of two people pretending to be in love who then actually fall in love. Bullock gets to look silly wandering through the streets of Sitka in heels, or letting a local exotic dancer (Oscar Nuñez) gyrate all over her. Those who fear the sight of new ground being broken can attend safely.
The old ground, however, proves surprisingly comfortable. Reynolds — who typically has radiated smug self-absorption — does genuinely likable work as a guy with plenty of insecurity issues to work through. He also delivers some of the sharpest lines in Pete Chiarelli's script, like suggesting people might like Margaret more if she would "stop eating children while they dream." Bullock, meanwhile, finds the sympathetic core of her flinty character, rediscovering the appeal that has made her so reliable in past romantic comedies. Even Betty White does nice things with the usually thankless role of the wacky granny.
Director Anne Fletcher was a choreographer before transitioning to rom-coms with last year's 27 Dresses, and here she deftly choreographs the familiar plot progression.
It's funnier and more charming than it seems to have any right to be.
The Proposal is assured enough when it's low-key that the ridiculous stuff — like an eagle kidnapping a puppy, or Bullock cutting loose with a dance around a bonfire — feels even more ridiculous. The comedy only needs to come from characters fumbling toward admitting what we already know, and the emotion only needs to come from the gracefulness of the scenes with which they open up to one another.
Good meals don't result only from meal combinations you've never experienced; sometimes you still love a recipe you've tasted a hundred times before. All you really need are quality ingredients.