Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #40: The Proposal (2009)

 

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The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

And then there was 2009. For fans all around the world, this truly was the year of Sandra. After disappearing from cinema screens for nearly two and a half years, she returned with not one, not two, but three feature films in 2009, all released within just five short months of each other. Now there have been many actors who have had three (or more) movies released in one given year (remember Natalie Portman’s epic run of six films between Black Swan and Thor?). There have even been actors who have made multiple movies in a given year and went on to win an Academy Award for one of them (think Jennifer Lawrence in 2012, with The Hunger Games, House at the End of the Street, and Silver Linings Playbook).

But not even Lawrence could replicate all the accolades and major milestones of what Sandra did in 2009. Her first film of the year, The Proposal, released in June, went on to make $163 million nationwide, becoming one of the smash hit comedies of the summer, and earned Sandra a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy. All About Steve, released in September, went on to only make $33 million (the same amount The Proposal made in its opening weekend) and earn her the Razzie Award for Worst Actress. Don’t worry, though — one more little film came out in November. The Blind Side went on to make a whopping $256 million nationwide, and win for Sandra the Critic’s Choice award, Golden Globe award, Screen Actors Guild award, and Academy Award. Let’s just say Sandra had a busy year.

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But it all started with The Proposal, which is easily her funniest, most enjoyable romantic comedy since While You Were Sleeping. She stars as Margaret Tate, a respected and powerful book editor in New York who learns that she’s about to be deported back to Canada for at least a year for having an expired VISA. She has no intention of leaving, though, so she blackmails her longtime assistant Andrew (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her, or he’ll be on the street looking for a new job, and his dreams of being a published author will be dead. But when it’s suspected that they might be committing fraud, they are forced to go up to Andrew’s family home for the weekend to take part in the ninetieth birthday celebration of Gammy (a delightful Betty White), and try to learn as much about each other as they can before their big interview on Monday. Of course, Andrew already knows everything there is to know about her, being her secretary morning to night, sometimes seven days a week, for three years running, while she knows next to nothing about him. And of course, throughout the weekend, they just might find themselves falling in love — for real.

The Proposal is not an especially original movie. You pretty much know where it’s going once its premise is established, and the arc of Sandra’s character is about as predictable as it gets. The film is directed by Anne Fletcher, who is not exactly known for making great works of art — she makes fun popcorn movies, and that’s exactly what The Proposal is. It’s the kind of movie you go to in the summer with your friends, have a few good laughs, and move on with your night. It’s not something you necessarily think about for long stretches afterward. But does it make you laugh? Yes. Is there chemistry between the two leads? Double yes. Does it feature one of Sandra’s better performances? Absolutely!

While in the 2000s Sandra turned in mediocre performances in equally mediocre films like Murder by Numbers, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, and Premonition, The Proposal is Sandra at her comedic best. Here is a character who has been alone most of her life, and who has had to work her way to the top through sweat, blood, and tears over three decades. She has no semblance of a family life, and no semblance of a life, period. In the beginning of the film, she is essentially the younger stepsister of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, with her tight black suit and no-nonsense ponytail, and a calm, composed way of firing people. She’s not the Sandra we know and love in the beginning. But when she arrives at Andrew’s parents’ house, everything changes. She slowly starts to come out of her shell, all the way to the end when she discovers she might have the capacity to feel real emotion, and give all her love to someone. She is in complete control of this character from the first scene, and it’s one of her most inspired and likable performances.

Anne Fletcher, who also directed 27 Dresses and The Guilt Trip, is the kind of director who mostly stays out of the way of her actors, and allows the story to unfold as naturally as possible. Her work is never on the subtle side, but one thing she does really well is casting (yes, even 27 Dresses, which features Katherine Heigl’s best lead performance in a movie). The Proposal benefits from Sandra’s performance, but it’s also guided along by a terrific supporting cast. Reynolds is almost too good looking for his role, but their relationship is very believable, and he rightly underplays his growing affection for his boss. They are really cute together, and despite their age difference (twelve years in real life), you can accept their attraction to each other, and that he would come to her at the end and say, “Marry me, because I want to date you.” Malin Akerman, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, and especially Denis O’Hare are very fine in underwritten roles. And then there’s White, whose last big career renaissance started with the release of The Proposal. Playing a woman on the verge of ninety, she’s got as much spunk as a teenager. Her reactions are priceless, all throughout the movie, and it’s especially fun to see her and Sandra, two of our most gifted comediennes, play off each other.

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In terms of the comedy, I found in watching The Proposal again for the first time since 2009 that the more subtle moments get laughs and the big scenes meant for uproarious laughter haven’t held up as well. Take for example the much discussed and promoted scene where the two leads bump into each other naked. While this is still a funny moment, the build-up to it is so contrived in its construction that it drains some of the fun away. The lap dance scene never really worked, and Margaret dancing and chanting in the forest still doesn’t ring true to me. I prefer the more subtle jokes, like Andrew sending out IM messages about his boss to everyone in the office, White saying, “she comes with a lot of baggage!” and Margaret trying to fall asleep with the Alaskan sun streaming in through the window.

In terms of the drama, the movie is way better than it has any right to be, and this is mostly due to Sandra’s performance. The scene where Margaret jumps into the boat and steers out to open waters, screaming about how she forgot what it was like to have a family, is a great moment. In the hands of a lesser actress, this scene might have come across as sentimental, but Sandra sells it. The wedding scene toward the end, where Margaret faces the crowd and finally reveals the truth, is also effective. She is subtle in this scene, never going over-the-top. And then there’s the finale back in the New York office. This key moment, by all accounts, shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does (especially since it was a new ending written and shot long after production had already wrapped). But the way Sandra plays this scene is beautifully subtle. Another actress could have thrown herself at Reynolds, with the music swelling, as she kissed him and said, “I love you, I love you!” Instead she just stands there for most of the scene, her eyes slowly welling with tears, as she gives him reasons why he shouldn’t be with her. But when he keeps pressing, with nowhere for her to go, she says, after a long, powerful beat, “I’m scared.” The woman who ruled the world in the first scene, in the end is terrified of finally opening up her emotional side. Of any scene in The Proposal, this scene is the most touching, and shows Sandra at the height of her dramatic power.

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Like The Blind Side, Sandra took a long time to commit to The Proposal. If you remember, back in the early 2000s, she claimed that Two Weeks Notice, the pleasant but unremarkable movie she made with Hugh Grant, would be her last romantic comedy. She was so committed to this idea that for months she refused to even look at the script. She said no, I’m done with this genre, no more. The producer and director, and her agents no doubt, begged her just to read it, so she could officially pass. So of course Sandra read it, and loved it, and happily accepted. It is one of the oddities of her films released in 2009 that the two movies she said no to for months ultimately made hundreds of millions and won her tons of awards — but the one she committed to early on, and even produced through her production company Fortis Films, was the bomb that netted her the Razzie. Go figure. We can all be thankful that people pushed Sandra into committing to The Proposal and The Blind Side, because they made for two of her best films and biggest hits. Is The Proposal a great movie? No. But it gives Sandra one of her richest performances to date.

Best Scene: Sandra, in the end, gets her real proposal.

Best Line: “You can’t fight a love like ours! So… are we good?”

Fun Facts

Julia Roberts was the first choice to play Margaret, but reportedly refused to take a pay cut.

Betty White almost turned down her role because filming required her to spend ten weeks away from her golden retriever.

The film was remade in 2012 as a Malayalam-language Indian film, My Boss.

Sandra received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical, her first nomination in this category since Miss Congeniality.

In this film, Sandra plays a Canadian who wants to marry her American assistant. In real life, Reynolds is from Canada and Sandra is American.

The Proposal grossed $317 million worldwide, becoming the highest grossing romantic comedy of 2009, and one of Sandra’s biggest hits to date.

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