Fifteen minutes after seeing The Proposal, I'd forgotten I'd seen The Proposal. Well, that's not entirely true: By then, it had simply merged in my memory with a thousand other films just like it — those in which phony lovers bound together by dubious circumstances become honest-to-kissin' couples in just less than two hours' time — till it had lost all identity of its own.
Starring Sandra Bullock as the publishing-house boss who blackmails her assistant, played by Ryan Reynolds, into marrying her, lest she face deportation to Canada — and, really, Canada? What a tepid, ludicrous and altogether insane plot point — The Proposal is nothing but a faint echo of its predecessors, which are too numerous to name. (Check your premium-cable schedule for a complete rundown if necessary.)
You know every tinny beat and false note by heart, from the implausible setup to the sprint-to-the-airport finish. The Proposal, in fact, appears to have been written using a secret cache of computers stored beneath Walt Disney HQ since 1978 — codename "Pete Chiarelli," the first-time screenwriter who receives credit for having pilfered every rom-com convention since the invention of breathing. (It was directed by Anne Fletcher, who stitched together 27 Dresses out of the leftover scraps not used here.) Or, perhaps, it's the product of a book of MadLibs in which spaces are left blank for The Handsome Male Ingénue Specializing in Cocked Eyebrows, The Former Rom-Com It-Girl on Comeback Trail Who Looks Ten Years Younger Than Her Age and The Ex-Golden Girl as Dirty-Minded Grandmother. Already filled in: Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen as The Parents and Malin Akerman as The One Who Got Away. And there you have it: HBO instaclassic! "Here comes the bribe," utters the poster's tag line. Genius. Such great minds.
The true believers, of course, will insist that it's not about the end destination, but the journey to the airport (and then the altar) that counts. But that apologia doesn't wash, not when The Proposal has all the momentum, wit and sincerity of a coffee commercial. And it even looks crummy, Alaska setting aside — like some wide-screen epic chopped and screwed for viewing on the last working Sony Watchman.
But were one so inclined to offer mercy, it may be said that the actors don't always appear to be going through the motions; there are at least a handful of scenes in which they might have been trying — Bullock, in particular, as she flexes old muscles and tries not to look sore. Most recently seen vacillating between poolside-paperback fantasies (The Lake House, Premonition) and awards-season fare (Infamous, Crash), Bullock occasionally makes a valiant attempt to overcome the stale role with which she's been saddled: that of the cold, hard, even semi-racist bitch-boss who'll eventually melt into a puddle of love for the underling she's ignored and abused for three years while sending him on "midnight Tampax runs." But she gets really weary toward the movie's end; turns out, making something from nothing is exhausting work, even in the crisp climes of the Alaskan wild.
For Reynolds, too, The Proposal feels like a clumsy step backward — like something he might have made while transitioning from the smart-ass parts he used to take (Van Wilder and Waiting...) to the better ones he can get now (Definitely, Maybe, Adventureland). Here, Reynolds only seems into the proceedings when he's subjecting Bullock to small, casual cruelties, as if this were, in fact, a heartless workplace-revenge fantasy and not a brainless romantic comedy. But those flashes are brief and ultimately empty gestures, because around every corner lurks Betty White ready to throw her handmade "baby-making blanket" over the cute couple destined to live happily ever after, so help me, God.