The moment when pushy boss Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) suddenly forces her unsuspecting, docile, but ever-so-hunky young assistant Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) to tell her superiors they're to be married so she won't be deported back to her native Canada, there's a certain awkward amusement. But it's more in the way Ryan Reynolds plays it than the situation, as written -- our unease, and the actor's. If there is such a thing as "reality," this ain't it. What's a Ken-doll type like Ryan Reynolds doing in a job like this? The answer is, waiting for this moment. Otherwise, if you had the sort of guy who might really be doing this sort of job, you wouldn't have a romantic comedy, and that's what the makers of the elaborately lame The Proposal are reaching for.
It's not just that the assistant would probably be gay, or a young woman, as are Meryl Streep's in The Devil Wears Prada. Well, yes, it is, in a way. The author of the Prada book had worked for Anna Wintour. This ill-conceived book editor is feared by everyone on the floor just like the editor of Vogue. But although she seems ready to fire anyone she doesn't like, she does nothing but read unsolicited manuscripts while riding an exercise bike and coax well-known authors into doing Oprah. Her assistant, who presumably takes care of everything else, is an aspiring writer and editor, but he still looks like a guy who spends most of his time at the gym.
The standard Forties material -- sparring guy-and-gal fall in love -- has to stand the test of 21st-century role-reversals, boss-lady, servile man. But the real problem is the serious lack of chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds. This is role for Katharine Hepburn, who could be imperious, overbearing, elegant, but very feminine. If only Ryan Reynolds were Cary Grant, but needless to say, he isn't. He's not suave, merely fresh and pleasant. The best you can say for him is that despite his bulky muscles he looks okay in a suit. The wardrobe department are the unsung heroes of this film. But it's not that Reynolds or Bullock does bad work, just that the writing sucks.
The movie doesn't manage to establish Margaret's dominance or Andrew's competence before the plot gets its sendoff. Instead, off they go to Alaska to meet his family on a weekend when the Paxtons plan to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of Andrew's Grandma Annie (Betty White). Clearly, Andrew realizes he now has the upper hand. Margaret threatens to fire him if he doesn't cooperate, but she has more to lose. And so he sets out to make her experience in Alaska hell.
But the new venue takes over and the comedy gets lost in the surprises Andrew's family offers. The Paxtons turn out to be by far the richest people in the remote town of Sitka (no, not Sitcom). This is the lazy way to handle the situation, so long as the filmmakers have the budget for it, which they do: poshness is so generic, so Hollywood. On hand are Craig T. Nelson from The Family Stone and Mary Mary Steenburgen from a couple more raucous but equally bad family comedies, 'Step Brothers' and 'Four Christmases.' And veteran Betty White, whose energy at 87 is admirable, but whose eccentric old lady role is annoying and cloying.
Anne Fletcher lacks inventiveness and finesse in staging the standard situations. When Andrew has to jump into bed with Margaret in the morning when mom brings in breakfast (the Paxtons are rich, but they still do all the work in their mansion, except at party time), the sequence is drawn-out and unfunny. When the still-unfriendly couple accidentally fall on top of each other while naked, it's more clunky than cute: they're like big icky wet statues. It's better not even to talk about the omnipresent Ramone, played by Oscar Nuñez of "The Office," who apparently somebody thinks is funny enough to be a waiter, a general store manager, an erotic dancer, and the minister for a wedding ceremony. The erotic dancer part is excruciating. Only in Sitka, not, hopefully, in any other movie. Did the filmmakers bring in an actor from "The Office" to make up for how poorly they developed the office scenes earlier in the movie?
Oh yes, and there's other fun stuff like an eagle chasing a puppy and then flying off with Margaret's cell phone instead; Betty White chanting around a fire with a rug; Betty Steenbergen looking harried; and Craig T. Nelson driving biodegradable golf balls into the bay. When the two would-be lovebirds return to New York and tell the immigration officer they're in love for real now and willing to undergo his scrutiny, he says "Let's do it!"