At the soft comic heart of "The Proposal" beats a cheeky update of "The Taming of the Shrew" -- you know, the arranged marriage, wives-submit-to-husbands rubric that Shakespeare played around with all those years ago. The conceit shouldn't, by all rights, work in a modern world where love, and everything else, is supposed to be an equal opportunity affair. And yet . . .
Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds are Margaret and Andrew, the love match at the center of this story, which unfolds through a prism of corporate ambition, fractious families and immigration regulations. All of which might sound rather dreary if not for the caustic yet comfy chemistry created by its two sparring stars, who somehow make the incompatible compatible in some very amusing ways.
As with so many things these days, this romantic comedy begins at the office, a New York publishing empire where books turn out to be as cutthroat a business as bonds. Enter the sharp-tongued shrew: "It's here . . . " is the ominous message that pops up on everyone's computer screen as Margaret strides into work, tightly wrapped in a very long pencil skirt, very high stilettos and a very severe ponytail that doesn't so much bounce as slice through the air.
Reynolds as Andrew, her hurried, harried assistant, is the man colleagues depend on day to day to soothe the savage beast. Everything about Andrew is spring-loaded too: the alarm clock's late, the elevator's early, the suit's too tight, the coffee's too cold, to say nothing of the boss.
Still, love is in the air starting with director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Peter Chiarelli. In their hands, Margaret is not so much a shrew, as the sort of typical type-A female executive you find in management's top tier. For those of you asking, "Well, isn't that the same thing?" the short answer is: no. At her most heartless, she relishes firing her editor in chief, Bob (Aasif Mandvi), from all indications an arrogant, lazy incompetent who has taken advantage of his position for years, which wouldn't exactly get him a sympathy card these days.
An expired green card -- she's, gulp, Canadian -- changes everything. As fast as she can say, "Andrew and I are engaged," a conspiracy is born. There's a very cynical immigration agent to outwit, family and friends to fool and only four days before she's deported if they don't. So, basically, it's fraud on a fast track with the possibility of five years behind bars for Andrew, setting the stage for a power grab of major proportions. Revenge is sweet, and Andrew isn't shy about exacting it.
This is typically the point in a comedy in which humiliation really digs in hard. Instead, the filmmakers leave Margaret's dignity intact except, perhaps, for a few moments here and there: the on-her-knees-on-a-busy-Manhattan-street formal proposal Andrew demands, her cheek to "cheek" with a male stripper, a full-frontal collision . . .
Everything, though, is softened by the world of Andrew's hometown, picturesque Sitka, Alaska, where the newly contrived couple has come for the 90th birthday of his Gammy, a delightfully bizarre Betty White. It turns out that in Sitka there are would-be scene stealers around every corner, with a fine supporting cast that includes Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson as his parents, Malin Akerman as the beautiful and still single ex and, a standout, Oscar Nunez as shopkeeper-preacher-exotic dancer Ramone.
Not to suggest that "The Proposal" goes deep, but the film does explore how power, pragmatism and emotion shape a relationship, though in Fletcher's hands this is a kinder-gentler version of the battle of the sexes. Think of it as comic relief from the very bad-boy brand of humor that's all the rage these days.
That doesn't mean Bullock and Reynolds haven't been given a lot to work with -- they have, and the film plays to their strengths. Bullock's deft physical comedy, one of her most endearing qualities, is given a full run. And Reynolds' ability to deliver a line, or a look, with withering, surgical precision is there at every turn.
There are mistakes, especially when the alpha-male bully in Andrew is allowed to surface but not enough to ruin the party. In the end, "The Proposal" is just a good old-fashioned romance, one in which people actually bring out the best in one another rather than the worst. How novel is that?
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release