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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds waste their considerable chemistry in the subpar rom-com The Proposal.
During her recent press tour for The Proposal, star Sandra Bullock was quoted as saying that she "hates" romantic comedies. The comment was surprising, especially in light of the fact that the film she was promoting is not just a romantic comedy, but one that slavishly follows a very worn-out and clichéd rom-com formula. Was she, in effect, saying that she hates her own film? Was it a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the fact that, since she doesn't get the same top drawer dramatic roles that routinely go to peers like Charlize Theron or Kate Winslet, she's blatantly returning to the well that has provided success in the past? These questions are more entertaining than The Proposal itself, which is a great example of moviemaking on autopilot.

Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a demanding, sexually-repressed book editor. When she's threatened with deportation back to Canada, the only solution seems to be blackmailing her long-suffering assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) into marrying her so she can stay in the country. He doesn't like the idea - or her, for that matter - but Margaret has him over a barrel; if she goes, so do his dreams of someday being promoted to editor. He therefore acquiesces, while an immigration officer attempts to prove their "engagement" is phony.

Following through on the ruse means Margaret has to accompany Andrew to his grandmother's 90th birthday party on a small island off the coast of Alaska. His parents (Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen) are shocked to learn that he plans to marry this woman he's spent so much time griping about. Grandma Annie (Betty White), however, is thrilled and talks the couple into getting married in the barn before the weekend is over.

When it comes to romantic comedies, you can be sure of one thing: if a man and a woman bicker incessantly, they will fall deeply in love before the final reel. Do I even need to tell you that Margaret and Andrew start to notice their feelings for one another thawing? The screenplay not only heads for the predicable finish line, it also makes sure to hit all the predictable stops along the way: Margaret and Andrew see one another naked, they are forced into an unexpectedly passionate kiss, there's a moment where she's in danger and he has to rescue her, etc. It's all stuff that's been done a million times before.

The Proposal is also one of those pictures that telegraphs everything that's going to happen before it actually does. So when Grandma Annie warns the couple not to let the dog outside alone because the eagles will scoop him up, you know it's only a matter of time before this very thing occurs.

Too much of the film relies on this sort of broad humor. There's a whole mini-subplot about the Paxton women taking Margaret to see the town's only male stripper ("The Office" co-star Oscar Nunez), who also happens to be the town's grocery store owner, caterer, and preacher. At times, the comedy is almost embarrassing to watch. In what has to be one of the dumbest movie scenes of 2009, Margaret discovers Annie holding some sort of weird ritual out in the forest. The sequence ends with the two of them singing Lil Jon's "Get Low" together.

This is all a shame because Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds have undeniably great chemistry together. It's so good, in fact, that I wish they'd been allowed to apply it to a more ambitious story. When you have two actors with crack comic timing and red-hot chemistry, do you really need all the peripheral stuff? The stars are strong enough together to support a more realistic, heartfelt romantic comedy. The Proposal also has a compelling subplot about Andrew's conflicted relationship with his disapproving father. In these moments, you can see just how much better the picture could have been and how dumbed down it generally is.

While essentially painless to sit through, I found myself growing antsy watching The Proposal because I felt like I'd seen it before - many times. There are great, inventive romantic comedies, like Say Anything… or Jerry Maguire - films that explore relationships in ways that are new or insightful or make you look at love in a different way. And then there's the pre-processed stuff, like Must Love Dogs, Fool's Gold, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and Made of Honor that serve up all the same old elements like a TV dinner. The Proposal joins the ranks of the latter.

( out of four)

The Proposal is rated PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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