The Proposal

She’s a cold-hearted scary boss lady; he’s her much-abused personal assistant. In order to avoid being deported to her native Canada, she tells the immigration office that he’s her fiance — which means now they have to meet his family and pretend to be in love! Even though they don’t get along! But as the charade continues, they’re surprised to discover that sometimes the thing you pretend is true actually turns out to be true….

That’s “The Proposal.” Surely the sound of it makes you want to drive an ice pick through your eye. But while the plot is generic, unimaginative, brainless romantic-comedy fodder at its most basic, the movie proves bearable thanks to Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds’ charismatic performances. Please note that I said bearable, not good. Not even average. Given the plot summary, though, you have to admit that anything better than “I took my own life halfway through the screening” is impressive. It’s sort of like when someone opens fire on a crowded shopping mall and “only” two people are injured. Yay! I mean, boo, still, of course, but … yay!

Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a no-nonsense, no-smiles editor at a New York publishing house, thus adhering to the law which states that all heroines of romantic comedies must live in Manhattan and work in the media industry (usually fashion magazines, but book publishers are OK). Reynolds plays Andrew Paxton, her assistant, gofer, and abuse recipient. Since Margaret is a workaholic, Andrew has to be, too. He doesn’t like her, and neither does anyone else. Margaret, for her part, doesn’t think about Andrew enough to have formed an opinion of him.

When Margaret is told by her bosses that her visa has expired and she will have to return to Canada, she impulsively declares that no, no, it’s OK, because she’s engaged to an American citizen. Andrew is the obvious choice for her ruse. The wily immigration officer, Gilbertson (Denis O’Hare), doesn’t buy their story — people try stuff like this all the time, you know — but Margaret says they’re going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and announce their engagement this very weekend.

Andrew is from a tiny fishing village where everything is named after his family. “Why didn’t you tell me you were some kind of Alaskan Kennedy?” Margaret asks. “How could I?” Andrew replies. “We were in the middle of talking about you. For the last three years.”

Andrew’s father, Joe (Craig T. Nelson), is disappointed in him for leaving Alaska for the big city. His mother, Grace (Mary Steenburgen), and grandmother, Annie (Betty White), are thrilled that he’s brought a girlfriend. For most of the film, Grace and Annie stand around leering suggestively, apparently giddy at the idea of Andrew having sex. You expect this sort of behavior from Betty White, who has been a dirty old woman since the Depression, but Mary Steenburgen?

As usual with these things, Andrew and Margaret “pretend” to be in love by acting squeamish when called upon to kiss and generally avoiding one another. Why? Because that’s “funnier” than if they actually put on a good act and convincingly faked being in love. Lots of crazy things happen to Margaret, like witnessing a male strip show, and letting the family dog get carried off by an eagle. Because she’s a big-city girl who never has any fun, you see. Ha, ha. Get it?

The screenplay, by first-timer Pete Chiarelli, is obligated to include a hometown ex-girlfriend for Andrew, the pleasant but blank Gertrude (a pleasant but blank Malin Akerman). Her character, just like Andrew’s mom, is woefully underdeveloped, serving almost no purpose in the story. Since there’s never any question of whether Andrew and Margaret will eventually fall in love, and since Gertrude is never presented as a serious alternative, why is she even here? She feels like a character who had most of her scenes cut in post-production.

Hmm. It sounds like I hated this movie. I suppose I did, mostly. Did I mention yet that Andrew and Margaret get talked into having the wedding immediately, this weekend, while the family is all together in Alaska? And that the suspicious immigration officer SHOWS UP to investigate the veracity of their true love and affection? And that the entire plot, from top to bottom, is even less plausible than most romantic-comedy plots? And that the whole affair was directed by Anne Fletcher, the choreographer-turned-director who made “Step Up” and “27 Dresses”?

But there’s something about Bullock and Reynolds. They have chemistry — not romantic (goodness no!), but comic. They both play sarcasm well, and their impeccable timing means that even some of their terrible rom-com dialogue earns a chuckle here and there. Bullock was once America’s Sweetheart, you’ll recall, and you can see vestiges of her former glory in this anything-goes performance. In fact, you can see more than that in the scene where Andrew and Margaret, compelled to share a bedroom, accidentally see each other naked. Without sacrificing the PG-13 rating, Bullock reveals a lot more of herself than you’d expect. Anything for comedy, right? I admire that attitude, even if “The Proposal” is ultimately only slightly better than awful.

C- (1 hr., 44 min.; PG-13, a little profanity, a fair amount of sexual language, some partial nudity.)