If Hollywood were to crown a king and queen of nice movie stars, Sandra Bullock would be on a throne next to Tom Hanks. She’s been a headliner since the mid-1990s without incurring the hatred or envy of the town’s rapier-tongued gossips. Apparently she is kind to children, dogs and the little people on the set. Onscreen, Bullock personifies the wholesome, working-class common sense of the ideal friend or girlfriend. From her first hits, Speed and While You Were Sleeping, she knew how to get laughs and produce tears with equal, unforced agility. And with Julia Roberts’ four-year break from starring roles , Bullock is the one enduring star actress of her age. All this stokes a rooting interest in film folk and audiences alike. They just wish she were in better movies.
You could count Bullock’s above-average pictures on one hand and not use the thumb. Her two early hits, plus A Time to Kill and the sinfully enjoyable Miss Congeniality, would just about exhaust the list. Even adding the very debatable large-ensemble Crash wouldn’t give her a high batting average, considering her subpar romantic comedies , dramas and female-bonding weepies . Yet every year or so, Bullock goes back in front of the camera, trying to prove there’s a place in movies for a star actress with a light, sure touch. And each time, her fans show up, hoping this will be the film that is as winning as they know she can be. The Proposal isn’t it too predictable and schematic by half but it indicates what a good Sandra Bullock film might be. She plays Margaret Tate, the top-dog editor at a Manhattan publishing company who’s so hard, you could skate on her. Margaret routinely humiliates all her co-workers, especially her male assistant, Andrew Paxton , who stays in the awful job because he wants to be promoted to an editor’s job. Fat chance. But now Margaret, a Canadian, is threatened with deportation unless she gets married to a U.S. citizen … say, her male assistant. Strictly business: quick wedding, quicker divorce, promotion accomplished. Deal The movie plot of a successful career woman and her male secretary was actually a Hollywood staple in the ’30s and ’40s , long before the setup was common in American business. Here, the underling role allows Andrew to direct the kind of barbs at Margaret that all secretaries wish they could say with impunity to their bosses. The Proposal also employs the antique device of the warring couple obliged to act like lovers. Margaret and Andrew have to meet his parents back home in Alaska and sell the pretense that they’re happily engaged, leading to many forced smiles and private grimaces. Having created Margaret as a termagant, screenwriter Pete Chiarelli and director Anne Fletcher put her through a film-length rehab of tough love. You just know that her early nastiness will require a public confession and that if she mentions she can’t swim, she will get embarrassingly wet. But through all the creaky scaffolding, one can catch glimpses of the fine comedy this could have been if only the characters weren’t cardboard, the plot not a course in corrective behavior. Reynolds has a gentle, manly appeal, and Bullock, when Margaret cracks into humanity, lets her charm radiate like a lighthouse beam over a sea of sludge. So Bullock faces two big challenges. She’s a star actress at a bad time for the breed , and her gifts of subtle endearment just aren’t needed in movies that force their stars into Manichaean opposition. Make that three problems: the rise of younger actresses like Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson and Katherine Heigl, who have built their own constituencies with hit movies and are now more likely than Bullock to be offered the few good romantic-comedy scripts that get written these days. Being liked is great, but Hollywood loves nothing more than a solid movie that proves a star personality can again be box-office gold. See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.