Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Proposal (2009)

I read a New York Times review of this movie before seeing it and now wonder if that reviewer and I saw the same film. The critic saw this as an updated version of the Taming of the Shrew, with Sandra Bullock's character (Margaret) learning to bow to her man. Not at all.

Margaret doesn't start off as a spirited woman who doesn't know her place. She's a heartless tyrant. Furthermore, she doesn't change because she is spanked (or otherwise humiliated) by Petruchio. She changes because she realized her callousness had the potential to hurt people and she wanted to avoid doing so. She wasn't "tamed" because she was an uppity female any more than Ebenezer Scrooge was henpecked into redemption by the ghost. She changed because she realized her own flaws, compounded by the ability to misuse her power over others, and wanted to correct them. This was more a movie about personal growth than sexual restriction.

It should be noted that although you could see the ending coming at you from a continent away, even rote is sometimes refreshing, especially in the hands of the entertaining Bullock and Reynolds.

Do they have chemistry? Who can say? They don't need it for most of the movie, where the very point is supposed to be their awkwardness together.

Margaret, conveniently Canadian, is a beastly boss who, shortly after telling the hard-working Andrew that he cannot take the weekend off to attend his Grandma's (Gammy's) 90th birthday, learns that she will be deported out of the United States for failing to update her visa status. Since Andrew is an American, she quickly announces to her superior that she will be marrying him, paving the way for her to remain in the country. Of course, she doesn't consult with Andrew about this decision and, when he protests, crisply points out that if she loses her job, he will promptly lose his.

Andrew agrees to the plan under duress, but not without finagling of his own, pressuring Margaret to give him an immediate promotion if he marries her. Under the watchful eye of a comically determined immigration officer, Margaret promises Andrew the raise.

As they compare personal statistics, the better to convince the immigration officer that they are a genuine couple, Margaret tells him that they will, of course, tell the INS that they live in her Central Park apartment. Why must they automatically live in his place, he asks, because his is probably a dump she snaps back. I think this statement is one of the first keys to Margaret's eventual change. She assumes that Andrew has been so conveniently tacked under her thumb for the last 3 years because he desperately needs his job and that he puts up with her 24/7 demands because to do otherwise would lead to his personal and professional ruin.

As part of the immigration ruse, the couple must tell Andrew's family about their impending nuptials. When they arrive at Andrew's home town in Sitka, Alaska, Margaret is shocked to discover that Andrew's family owns half of it. That twist reminds me more of Jane Austen's Darcy than Shakespeare's Petruchio. Cynically, I wonder if Andrew wouldn't be half as lovable, if he were half as wealthy.

Pivotally, though, Andrew's background is the first step in Margaret's change of view. It slowly dawns on her that Andrew wasn't working for her because he had no other choice. When he told her that he wanted to work his way up in publishing to print books that made a difference, she was unimpressed. She probably passed the statement off as the type of shallow gushing to be found on the resumes of every publishing ingenue aspiring to fame and fortune. But once Margaret is introduced into Andrew's spacious family digs and learns both of his parents want him to return to their monied home, albeit for different reasons, she knows that it wasn't financial concerns that kept him working (slaving) for her.

She learns that he was toiling his way up the publishing ladder for more lofty reasons -- because he really did want to make a difference. Further, she sees that he has a stereotypically overbearing father who scoffs at his career and a doting mother and grandmother who easily shower the kind of affection on their son (and his fiancee) that Margaret hasn't enjoyed since she was orphaned at the age of 16.

Finally, Margaret is aware that Andrew not only has other financial options, but romantic ones too. She knew that the Starbucks cashier had a thing for him (having written her number on a coffee cup that Andrew picked up for Margaret), but he also has a home town girl who's been missing him as well.

Margaret not only slowly begins to see Andrew as a person, rather than just an assistant, but she sees him as a person with a rich life. The kind she's been lacking.

Andrew, whose character is charming, but even less layered, doesn't tame Margaret. She evolves on her own and there's no big event that changes her, just exposure to a quirky family and a view of relationships she couldn't see from behind her business desk. If Margaret kowtows to anyone, it's not Andrew, but his grandmother (as when she politely asks if it's ok with the older woman, when Margaret leaves their wacky tribal dance to go into town). While I liked the metamorphosis, it wasn't entirely realistic. With very little stimulus, Margaret's icy facade melted away faster than anything ever has in Alaska.

Other than the proposal premise, the movie is not heavy on plot. It's basically just likable characters interspersed with a few truly, funny exchanges. For me, the verbal quips work better than the sight gags and slapstick.

The conclusion is entirely predictable -- unless you thought he was going to catch her plane on the runway. We were only teased with that particular cliche. The ending credits add finishing touches to the happy ending.

The movie was entertaining, if not outstanding. Certainly, it contains no put-her-in-her-place misoygyny, save for one dubious line where Margaret admits to weeping in the ladies' room after a subordinate calls her a "poisonous bitch." The New York Times used the movie as an excuse to revisit the popular plaint that this society labels a forceful man as strong, while a forceful woman's a "bitch." Work place Margaret isn't offensive because she's strong. It's because she's just obnoxious and her conduct (announcing to others that Andrew would be marrying her, before advising him) would be even less acceptable practiced by a man towards a woman, not more so.

Sure, when the lovers kiss as the movie fades to black, one spectating co-worker goads Andrew on, insisting that he "show her who's boss." But the audience is not left with the impression that Andrew has the upper hand. This woman hasn't learned to respect a man. Instead, like Scrooge, she's just learned to be human.

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