‘The Proposal’

The proper response to a proposal is either yes or no.

The proper response to "The Proposal," by contrast, is a bit of both.

A genial romantic comedy (aka chick flick, for all you chick flick haters out there), "The Proposal" provides a textbook illustration of a time-honored cinematic principle: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

It’s utterly predictable and eminently forgettable, to be sure, and nothing you haven’t seen a zillion times before.

But the charmingly deft cast — led by Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds — proves such good company, you might not care that you can recite the dialogue along with the characters.

And even if you do care (as this cranky critic certainly does), "The Proposal’s" modest charms may win you over before it’s all over.

Besides, romantic comedies aren’t as easy as they look. Especially these days, in an era when precious few obstacles remain to keep couples apart.

Not that Margaret Tate would ever dream of being part of a couple. Unless she had to — and she has to.

A bitch-on-wheels editor who’s about to assume command of a big publishing firm, nothing stands in Margaret’s way — except for the minor matter of her Canadian citizenship and lack of proper immigration papers, which means she’s about to get deported.

Enter Margaret’s browbeaten assistant, Andrew Paxton (Reynolds), who’s so eager to find a place in publishing he’s willing — reluctant, but willing — to devote himself to satisfying Margaret’s exacting demands.

Suddenly, those demands include becoming her instant fiance, so she can stay in the United States, run the publishing company — and continue to make his life a waking nightmare.

Naturally, the snippy INS agent (Denis O’Hare) on Margaret’s case is more than a tad suspicious.

But he should be less so now that Margaret and Andrew are making their public debut as an engaged couple — during a visit to Andrew’s folks in beautiful Sitka, Alaska.

Suddenly, the uber-urban Margaret’s the one who’s off-balance, especially when she realizes that her lowly assistant happens to be the son of a powerful businessman (a grouchy Craig T. Nelson) who resents his son’s determination to forge his own path — and defy family tradition.

At least Andrew’s genial mother (Mary Steenburgen) is delighted to meet her son’s future bride. So is Grandma Annie (the inimitable Betty White), who’s not about to let a little thing like family tension interfere with a great big ol’ Alaska welcome for the unsuspecting city gal joining the family — whether she knows what she’s getting into or not.

Of course she doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

But we do — because screenwriter Pete Chiarelli (a producer making his credited screenwriting debut) manages to dredge up pretty much every fish-out-of-water cliche ever committed to celluloid.

But that’s not all. "The Proposal" also introduces some other trendy topics, from the cougar conundrum (older woman, younger man) to father-son conflict to that old standby, the outwardly steely, inwardly vulnerable workaholic who discovers, much to her shock, that she’s got a heart after all.

We’ve definitely seen it all before, which is hardly surprising, considering how shamelessly "The Proposal" cribs elements from such superior predecessors as "The Devil Wears Prada" and classics from "The Philadelphia Story" to "Local Hero." (Somehow, it seems downright blasphemous even to mention the latter two in the same sentence as a movie as derivative as "The Proposal" turns out to be.)

But at least choreographer-turned-director Anne Fletcher ("Step Up," "27 Dresses") knows how to inject a little life into the frequently creaky script, adding a touch of screwball zaniness that revs up the proceedings — sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

The scenic surroundings (beautifully captured by veteran cinematographer Oliver Stapleton) create a glowing, otherworldly setting for Margaret and Andrew’s inevitable emotional thaw.

Even when the script’s not up to snuff, however, the performers are, injecting "The Proposal" with a raucous, good-time spirit that’s positively infectious, from Steenburgen’s sunny sweetness to White’s force-of-life humor. (Her character reminded me of Jack Palance’s Curly in "City Slickers" — and there I go again with comparisons to other, better movies.)

Reynolds once again demonstrates that he’s more than a handsome face, bringing zingy edge to his role as the obligatory wage slave yearning to follow, and achieve, his dream. Bullock, meanwhile, once again demonstrates her rom-com expertise, proving equally adept at capturing demanding boss-from-hell selfishness — and the hurt little girl who’s in there somewhere, desperate for a chance to reveal herself.

And, of course, claim her happy ending.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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