Posts in: July 30th, 2010

Special Contributors: The Proposal (2009) by Linda Mears

I sometimes wonder if my life would have turned out differently if I’d been a professional. Now, I had and still have a career as a homemaker. But aside from working two summers at Lebo’s Shoe store in high school, I never had a professional job. I was never a book editor like Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock), so it’s not easy to relate to a character like that. I’d call her unrealistic—I certainly don’t know any women like her—but I can’t imagine a strong woman like Sandra Bullock not just starring in this movie but executive producing if she thought the main character didn’t accurately represent a certain kind of woman.

Margaret has an assistant, Andrew (Ryan Reynolds), who she dumps all over for no reason. The movie tries to tell us she’s stressed out because it’s hard to be a woman in a man’s world. Maybe that’s true, but it’s no excuse to be so nasty. Poor Andrew is so scared of his boss, he orders the same fancy coffee drink as she does, even though he doesn’t like it, just on the off-chance that she spills hers. This is not a woman who’s easy to relate to, let me tell you. I had a much easier time relating to Andrew, even though he’s a man, because, well… Look, my Gary’s not a monster, but he does like his dinner on time. He also likes to have control of the remote. When things go wrong, he can be hard to live with.

Not like Andrew, who’s selfless and compassionate throughout. When he discovers Margaret is a Canadian citizen about to be deported, he graciously pretends to be her fiancé. But he’s smart, too—he only agrees to help her if she helps him by getting him a promotion. Maybe that sounds slimy and self-serving, but you haven’t seen Margaret! She got off easy with this deal, believe me. But things go awry—the immigration enforcer says he’ll give them a test to see if they’re really engaged. Andrew the sweetheart already knows the answers to the questions on the test, but Margaret hasn’t bothered to learn a thing about her assistant. In order to get to know him better, they take a trip to his hometown—in Alaska!

Margaret is impressed to find out Andrew comes from a wealthy family, but I was impressed that Andrew is so down-to-earth. Still, despite their wealth, Margaret has to adjust to the isolation and small-town customs found in Alaska. The locals are eccentric, but not nearly as eccentric as the wacky gang surrounding Dr. Joel Fleischmann in Northern Exposure. They’re actually sort of boring, except for the Hispanic guy from The Office (Oscar Nuñez) as a manservant/stripper. Can you believe it?!

Andrew has some problems with his dad, played by Coach himself, Craig T. Nelson. They have a history together; a bad history, and they don’t get along. Coach is a real man’s-man type, but Andrew is very sensitive and sweet. He doesn’t want to take over the family business. He’s artistic and thoughtful, not serious and business-minded. Andrew gets so flustered by his dad that he announces a fake engagement to Margaret, surprising everyone. Suddenly, the whole family gets involved, including Andrew’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) and grandma (Betty White, still the greatest!).

Over the course of the next few days, Margaret and Andrew really do get to know each other and seem to fall in love. Ironically, by the time they’re truly in love, Coach has discovered it’s all a sham and tries to bribe the immigration enforcer. I won’t tell you what happens at the end, but suffice it to say, Andrew keeps up his charm and adorableness, and he manages to melt the “ice princess” known as Margaret Tate.

This movie made me wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept working at Lebo’s. Maybe I could have hired an employee like Andrew. Of course, I’d never be the type to manipulate and threaten him into marrying me, but what if we had fallen in love? He seems like the type of man who would treat me right and call when he’s working late or going out drinking with “the boys.” Actually, he seems like the type who wouldn’t go drinking with the boys—his boys would probably just want to watch TV, like I do. I’ll bet they would even like Grey’s Anatomy.

I watched this movie over the weekend with my son, Nicky. Nancy, his little sister, was out with her friends. She’s at that age where doing anything with Mom is considered “uncool.” You know how it is. But Nicky was home, so he sat down and watched it with me. He seemed to like it, but when I asked him about it, all he said was, “Andrew’s too good for her.” And you know what? He really is. We’re supposed to like Margaret. She’s the big star and the main character of the movie, but she’s shrill and mean for no reason. The movie strains to make us like her, telling us a lot about her past to make us feel sorry for her and relate to why she’s such a bad person. But in the end, it’s not really happy. Maybe it is for Margaret, but not for Andrew. Margaret gets the good guy, but what does Andrew get? I’d like to see them make a sequel that shows Andrew standing up for himself and breaking away from Margaret for a nice woman who will treat him right.

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Zero Effect (1998)

In many stories, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is described by longtime business associate Watson as a disorganized bohemian, a man who lives in chaos of his own making and refuses to adhere to “social convention.” And yet, in what appears to be the mess of his personal life, Holmes hides an expansive knowledge of human behavior and an unparalleled attention to detail that, to modern audiences, might make him seem like both a walking contradiction and a cartoon character. In Zero Effect, writer/producer/director Jake Kasdan accomplishes the fairly monumental task of bringing Holmes into the modern era through the character of Daryl Zero.

Kasdan introduces Zero before we ever meet him, through dueling monologues by the same character—Steve Arlo (Ben Stiller), his “messenger”—who first tries to sell Zero’s services to wealthy client Gregory Stark (Ryan O’Neal), then complains relentlessly about him to a friend. Essentially a recluse, Zero lives in a penthouse suite protected by a mammoth vault security door (beyond which is another door containing six individual bolt locks) that would disgust the people featured on Hoarders. He subsists on canned tuna and Tab, writes terrible folk songs, doesn’t bathe or shave, and abuses Arlo for no apparent reason.

When Zero gets on a case, he becomes a different person. As he himself puts it (narrating his own story as he writes a memoir that will be read by no one), he blends in by “looking at what normal people do and trying to copy it.” That’s not to say he’s not still eccentric. He employs an astonishing, increasingly hilarious number of cover identities and disguises as a result of deep-seated paranoia. He even brings Arlo to the Portland airport just to tell him to go back to L.A., via pay phones a few feet away from each other, because he refuses to use long-distance lines (“They listen, you know.”).

Zero’s working method consists of what he calls “the two obs”: objectivity and observation. He refuses to meet with clients, which is why Arlo serves as his messenger to the outside world, because he doesn’t trust them. They always have something to hide, and the only way Zero can objectively assess them is by donning a disguise and watching. He has mastered the art of detachment. He also gives names to all his cases, such as “The Case of the Hitman Who Made Way, Way Too Many Mistakes.”

The film balances three central ideas: the crumbling working relationship between Zero and long-suffering Arlo, a blossoming romance—possibly Zero’s first ever—with paramedic Gloria Sullivan (Kim Dickens), and a mystery plot that rivals classic film noir. Gregory Stark hires Zero to find a set of missing keys but refuses to tell Arlo anything useful, which strikes them both as suspicious. The search for a set of keys leads to extortion and a tangled murder plot. One of the great joys of the film is watching the way this mystery unfolds in tandem with the character study. The web gets more and more tangled until Zero finally puts all the pieces together—but the solution could jeopardize the relationship he has formed with Gloria. Will Zero forsake “the two obs” for love?

It amazes me that a movie starring Bill “President Independence Day” Pullman and Ben “There’s Something About Mary” Stiller did a box-office belly flop and became a footnote in cult-film history. The always reliable Pullman has never been better than Zero, an extremely difficult character to pull off (why do you think most Holmes films omit the seeming contradictions of his personal life?). Stiller turns in a great, conflicted performance as Arlo, who knows how much Zero depends on him but feels the need to break away and resume living his own life. I’ve always felt Stiller is underrated generally, because so many of his memorable roles take him a few shades over the top, and anyone who disagrees with me should watch this movie. Dickens has the role of femme fatale, but she plays Gloria as a real person, not Jessica Rabbit. Her performance alone adds a needed layer of complexity to an often thankless, one-note archetype. The only thing I can say about the slimy weasel played by Ryan O’Neal is that I wish O’Neal worked more. Has he been less than great in anything?

Zero Effect has convinced me that Jake Kasdan should have the same sort of career Jason Reitman (another second-generation director) has: an accolade-garnering studio-backed-indie darling. Although he’s done some great work, particularly in TV, he’s never lived up to this debut, and that’s a shame.

Nevertheless, we’ll always have Zero Effect, one hell of a great film. Anybody who enjoys comedy, “quirky” characters, and well-crafted mysteries will love it.

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