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Romantic comedies often rely upon role reversals and fish-out-of-water plotlines to generate laughs, all of which are abundant in “The Proposal,” but this weekend’s top box office film also explores a deeper culture clash: the battle for priority between family and career.

In “The Proposal,” high-powered book editor Margaret Tate (played by Sandra Bullock), orphaned and left family-less as a teenager, now has her eyes set squarely on the prize, a successful career in New York City’s busy book biz.

But when only marriage to an American can save Tate from deportation back to her native Canada – and a consequent job loss – she makes her assistant and aspiring editor Andrew Paxton (played by Ryan Reynolds) what she thinks is a simple business proposal: “Marry me, or your career dreams are dead.”

Margaret and Andrew, then, set out to sacrifice something so small as a meaningless marriage on the altar of their careers, but eventually must face another altar, where society’s most fundamental institution of family – marriage – makes them both think twice about their chosen priorities.

What follows in this very funny romantic comedy – with often more emphasis on the comedy than the romance – is a comical, if typical, journey from the corporate climbing of New York City to the quaint, family setting of Andrew’s past.

Even in the charming community of his youth, however, Andrew (who hasn’t been “home” in three years) is reminded of a work ethic that has too often supplanted true family values. The roots of Andrew’s career drive can be seen in his father, who has built a dynasty, who is known to be “always working” and who declares to his son that he has strived his whole life to build an empire and demands Andrew take it over or it “won’t mean anything.”

And while Andrew is dealing with the demons of his past, Margaret is faced with angels she had long forgotten in her scramble to the top: the kind of people who love and accept, the kind of people most people call “family.”

The movie’s most pivotal line comes from the woman who has been bitterly alone since she was 16, when Margaret shouts, “I forgot what it was like to have a family, to have people who love you and ask you to come home for the holidays and give you [heirloom] necklaces!”

Indeed, it’s only when she’s standing at the wedding altar to seal the deal on her original business proposal that Margaret recognizes the full price she has too long paid for furthering her career.

Discerning movie viewers can watch the theme of family vs. career interwoven throughout the film, from the first moments when Margaret demands Andrew skip his grandmother’s 90th birthday party for a weekend business trip to that same grandmother’s “dying” moments, when she makes Andrew promise to “work harder … to be a part of this family.”

And while the theme of family vs. career in “The Proposal” is perhaps too subtle to club viewers over the head or truly punch them in the gut, it does do what romantic comedies are meant to do: pluck at the heart and tickle the funny bone.

Content advisory:

  • “The Proposal” contains several uses of profanity, though rarely out of place or overbearing.
  • Like many romantic comedies, sexual humor and jokes are present, though not as crass or abundant as many Hollywood offerings of the same genre.
  • “The Proposal” contains a surprising amount of nudity for a PG-13 film, including an extended male stripper scene (played for comic effect and intended to be somewhat “gross”), brief nudity from actor Ryan Reynolds and an extended comic scene of Margaret naked out of the shower, clearly designed to showcase actress Sandra Bullock’s physique (she does, however, work hard to cover certain, key areas). Though none of these scenes are meant to be seductive or steamy, as one might expect in an R-rated film, and though there are no “sex scenes” in the film, viewers should nonetheless be aware that Bullock shows off more than can be seen in a bikini.
  • As a humorous element, Andrew’s grandmother practices pseudo-Native American New Age religion, whereby she “gives thanks to mother nature” through ritual dance and expects “the spirits” to take her at death. The religious theme is not prevalent, however, and is played by actress Betty White primarily for one, clearly comical scene.

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