Poking at Awards: "Judges, Awards and the Word 'Best'" by Lou Morgan
Fiction: "Sketches by Zob" by Osgood Vance

Film 101: The Proposal (2009)

The_ProposalI go back and forth with myself about which genre of film is produced by people who think the least of me, a successful professional adult woman - whether it’s the brand of action film that objectifies me, puts me in heels and tiny skirts to be leered at by the hero and put in sexual danger by the villain. Or perhaps it’s that other brand of action film, the one that thinks that the only reason I, a woman, might ever be motivated to want to, say, blow shit up, is because I was raped. Maybe it’s the thoughtful cops-and-robbers psychodrama that leaves me at home to work on my forehead wrinkles while my tortured, complex husband is off solving crimes.

But it’s really no contest, is it? There’s a single genre of film out there that routinely and consistently treats its female characters with such utter, jaw-dropping contempt that it makes it all the more shocking when you realise that the genre itself is produced primarily for a female audience.

Yeah, I’m talking about rom coms.

Today’s film is a perfect example of the ‘rom coms hate women’ phenomenon, as it’s a romantic comedy devoted to humbling and, ultimately, destroying the professional life of a powerful, successful woman, all in the name of laughs and love.

I am particularly well-qualified to talk about today’s movie for a number of reasons, all of which will become clear below. But let’s start with the most obvious: I’m a post-adolescent woman, which makes me the exact target demographic for this film – a film with no target audience beyond ‘post-adolescent women’ (maybe ‘post-adolescent white women,’ which also applies to me). The Proposal stars Sandra Bullock, aka an actress post-adolescent women don’t hate, and Ryan Reynolds, an actor post-adolescent women find attractive. There are some expensive shoes and nice clothes, a puppy, Living Meme Betty White, Ryan Reynolds’ abs, and a finale that features a huge gesture that’s about as romantic as having a tooth removed without anaesthesia.

Let’s get to it.

The setup:  Margaret is a super high-powered ‘book editor’ (they keep saying that) at a super high-powered publisher in New York. She works hard and everyone hates her, because she’s apparently a bitch. We never actually see her do anything bitchy, but we are told that everyone’s terrified of her; her colleagues and employees all send each other IMs alerting the office to her moves and her mood. She is, theoretically, the Miranda Priestly of the fictional publishing industry. Except, unlike the Miranda Priestly of the fictional fashion world, we never actually see why everyone’s so terrified of her. She’s just… stern. And apparently good at her job. If she were a male character, she’d just be everyone’s kind of stand-offish boss. Because this film hates women, however, she’s an unqualified bitch. Oh, and she’s introduced walking down the street yelling at someone on her mobile phone, because, despite the fact that this film was released in 2009 and we all have cell phones now, that’s still a rom com signifier for ‘yuppie asshole.’ And, in case you’ve forgotten, the female equivalent of  ‘yuppie asshole’ is ‘executive bitch.’ Like our Margaret! Characterization done.

Next up is Ryan Reynolds’ cow-eyed assistant, Andrew. The film doesn’t actually know what his job is – or, indeed, what an assistant editor is (or an editorial assistant – the film’s not to clear on that, either). (Let me assure you that they’re both things, and slightly different things, at that.) So Andrew’s job is to do all of Margaret’s errands. Also, he not-so-secretly hates her, because she ignores his suggestions about unsolicited manuscripts and she doesn’t appreciate how hard he works, or something.

Back to my qualifications: I am not only a woman – I’m also an editor. Specifically, I’m a book editor, in the movie’s strained parlance. Now I’m not going to say that I know what every editor in every publishing office out there is like, but I know a pretty respectable number of editors. And, uh, in the Venn diagram expressing the film’s version of what an editor does and reality… there’s zero overlap. Zero.

The plot kicks in when Margaret fires someone because he didn’t do his job. We’re given no reason to think that she’s being irrational or abusing her authority. (Indeed; she gives her reasoning and it’s actually… totally sound.) Except that the film keeps telling us that she’s an unreasonable bitch abusing her authority. Then her bosses call her into their office to discuss the fact that her visa (she’s Canadian) is up and she’s about to be deported.

Yes, really.

Furthermore, they’re un-firing the guy she just very publically fired because he’s the only person in the entire office who can take over for her while she’s up in Canada for a year, being deported or whatever.

Instead of freaking out and quitting instantly because her superiors just undermined her authority in an overwhelmingly significant act, Margaret instead freaks out and says she’s getting married to Andrew, her assistant, who also happens to be a card-carrying American. Problem solved, right?

Her bosses, who clearly don’t believe her, don’t freak out and fire her immediately for having just lied to their faces, nor for the fact that she’s implicating not only a very junior employee in her lie but also someone who reports directly to her, NOR for the huge HR nightmare she’s just unleashed on the company, what with the fact that, if she’s not lying, she’s sleeping with her super-junior assistant.

HR reps everywhere are getting the cold sweats without knowing why, that setup is so awful.

Andrew, for reasons we’ll get to in a moment, plays along, and the two rush off to some sort of immigration… office… place, where Margaret cuts to the front of the line to file a fiancée visa. The two wind up in a private office with some nightmarish bureaucrat who is in no way convinced by their awful, awful act, and threatens both with fines, jail and deportation because they’re so obviously lying for the sake of getting Margaret a green card. Andrew blackmails Margaret into promoting him, and then they cook up a scheme to fly to Alaska for four days to learn everything about each other so they can pass the ‘fiancee visa test’ that Nightmare Immigration Official is insisting they take in four daystime. Why Alaska? Andrew’s from Alaska and it’s his grandmother’s 90th birthday this weekend! He was going to go, and then he wasn’t (because his bitch boss was making him work), but now he’s got her in a bind and she has to do what he says or he won’t pretend to be engaged to her.

To recap: she, super-senior executive, when threatened with deportation, forces her super-junior employee to pretend to be engaged to her. Neither gets fired. Then they cook up a scheme to spend four days in Alaska – a state which is more than four thousand miles away – so that they can spend the time learning enough about each other to pass a ‘test’ that will be given in four days, back in New York. Super-junior employee blackmails super-senior executive, making her agree to promote him in exchange for playing along.

Now I should also point out that I’m, in addition to being a book editor and a woman, I’m also an immigrant who had to go through some fairly serious rigmarole to marry a citizen of another country. It was a difficult, expensive, invasive process. It was also a lengthy process. Like, months and months of lengthiness, and I did it as quickly as humanly possible.

So. After they’ve got their ducks in a row, Andrew makes Margaret propose in the most humiliating way possible, telling her to get to her knees on the sidewalk outside the immigration office and then walking away while she’s kneeling before him, because there’s literally nothing this film won’t do to undercut Margaret’s power and authority. Then they fly to Alaska. From New York. A journey of more than seven hours, if you’re on a straight-through flight, and that doesn’t include the hours in the airport beforehand, and the nightmare of getting to the airport in city traffic, etc., etc. I mean, really. We’re conservatively talking about a ten hour travel day at the least. For a four-day weekend.

When they land, they take a puddle-jumper to Adorable Alaskan Town in the Middle of Nowhere, and from there a boat out to the island on which Andrew – whose father is apparently the godfather of Adorable Alaskan Town and stonkingly rich – grew up. Here’s what you need to know: Andrew’s house is huge and his parents hate each other. Also, his grandmother is Living Meme Betty White. Andrew and Margaret are forced to sleep in the same room, and Living Meme Betty White gives them ‘the babymaker,’ an enchanted quilt, to sleep under. In case you missed it, that’s what counts as ‘humor’ in this film.

Now, in a better film, they’d have been put up in Andrew’s childhood room, which would give Margaret a chance to get to know him in a new and meaningful way. Here, however, it’s just… a room. Andrew sleeps on the floor; Margaret sleeps in teeny silk pjs on the bed. They share a bathroom, which leads to predictable nekkid jijinks. Etc., etc.

Rather a lot of fairly predictable jokes follow in no real order, in this film that’s all setup and no payoff. There’s a subplot about the girl Andrew left behind in his drive to move as far away from his awful father and stifling small town as possible. This plotline, like every other plotline in this terrible film that doesn’t revolve around humiliating a smart and powerful woman, goes nowhere and means nothing. There’s also an excruciatingly embarrassing subplot featuring The Office’s Oscar Nunez, about which the less said the better. (I hope he got a nice vacation home out of his paycheck, at least, because Jesus.)

Anyway, what we learn during this interminable seventh-inning stretch is that Margaret’s parents died when she was 16 and she hasn’t gotten laid in a year. Yep, beneath all the power and authority, Margaret’s just a lonely woman who just wants a baby. That’s it. Strip away a woman’s pride and ego and ambition and what’s left? Babies.

Ugh.

We are also told that Andrew has a bad relationship with his father but the film makes no effort to explore it, nor the restlessness or the ambition that would drive someone from rural Alaska to New York City – and keep him there.

I’m not just a woman and a book editor and married to an immigrant. I’m also from a rural town and I also live many (many) thousands of miles from my family. What is it that drove me further and further away from that little town in California? Why am I content to live thousands of miles away from everything I knew as a child? What kind of relationship do I have with my family, and how do I feel about all of that? I have some opinions, but the film doesn’t! Nope!

This film only dumped this Alaska/New York thing on top of the steaming pile of crap that constitutes the rest of its setup to exploit some fish-out-of-water humor with no greater purpose than, you guessed it, humiliating Margaret.

MOVING ON. Andrew’s horrible father gets a call from Nightmare Immigration Official and flies the official to Middle of Nowhere, Alaska, for the express purpose of forcing his son to stay in Alaska and take over… whatever it is that he does. (Remember, we have no idea what Andrew’s father does, despite what an important plot-point this detail is.) Oh, and also dad’s act further humiliates Margaret, of course. But Margaret and Andrew kind of don’t even hate each other anymore, I guess because they’ve seen how toned the other’s naked body is, so they’ve very sad that the game is possibly kind of up. Or is it?

Meanwhile, Andrew’s family (who don’t know about his dad’s crazy, expensive, insane actions) decide to just throw them a wedding, in a ‘barn’ – like the office of the book publisher, this barn doesn’t look like any barn I’ve ever seen before – and do. In like three minutes. I… do I even have to say it?

While getting dressed in Living Meme Betty White’s wedding dress and being given a precious family heirloom, Margaret suffers a crisis of conscience and ultimately (in an excruciatingly humiliating scene, which is notable considering how many of her scenes are humiliating) dumps Andrew at the altar. Andrew is crushed. His family is perplexed. Nightmare Immigration Official cackles evilly and escorts her away.

Andrew, by this time, has complicated feelings for his boss/fake girlfriend/person he nearly just married. So Living Meme Betty White fakes a heart attack (!!!) which is the first step in a complicated scheme to get father and son to stop arguing AND hook up Andrew and Margaret. Apparently it succeeds, re. the father/son nonsense, (again, we’re told this, but, really, would you forgive your father for flying an immigration officer to Alaska for the express purpose of forcing you to move back home?) but Andrew misses Margaret at the airport and she is sent back to New York, her humiliation complete. OR IS IT.

FINALLY we open on Margaret sadly packing her office while everyone stares at her because her downfall is so hilariously well-deserved! Except the opposite of that. Andrew runs in and then, there, in front of an office full of people all of whom are her employees, Margaret gets all weepy and the two declare themselves to each other. But, like, not passionate love-declarations. Nope. He explains that he likes her and wants to date her, but can only do so if she’s in the country, so he’ll marry her to keep her around. Ignoring the horrific unprofessionalism of location and delivery, Andrew then kisses her. His boss. In front of the entire office of people who work for her, I remind you again.

Just to drive the last nail into the coffin of Margaret’s utter, ongoing shame-spiral-deathknell, someone actually catcalls ‘yeah, Andrew, show her who’s boss.’ HILARIOUS!

Does Margaret immediately whip around and fire this asshole? Nope. Her debasement complete, the film fades to black. THE END.

I’m not kidding. That’s the end. There’s some ‘hilarious’ stuff that rolls over the credits, but considering the unutterable horror of the 90 minutes that preceded it… I can’t. I just can’t.

Beyond it all – beyond nearly 2500 words, beyond all the italics, the liberal use of the caps lock, the cursing and the reiteration of my point ad nauseum, there is no way  I can do justice to the degree to which this film holds women in contempt. But not just women: specifically smart, powerful, important executive women. Women who work hard and run businesses. Women who have to make tough decisions in the face of a world that, like this film, holds them in contempt for being smart, powerful, important, and in the position of having to make tough decisions.

How does a film like this get greenlit? Who reads this script and thinks to themselves, ‘yeah, women are gonna love this shit’? because it is shit – it is utter, appalling, steaming, fly-attracting, foul-smelling, bottom-of-your-shoe-clinging, came-out-of-an-animal’s-butt shit.

And it’s not just shit. It’s bullshit. It’s false and ridiculous and nonsense and it’s garbage. It’s bullshit that, in 2009, a ‘let’s keep the wimmin-folks in their place!’ romp can be sold to us as a romantic comedy. That we’re supposed to cheer for Andrew to get his girl; for these two crazy kids to work it all out.

I don’t have a thoughtful way to tie this review up, because writing it has wrung me out. Most films treat women like they don’t matter. This film treats women like they shouldn’t matter.

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