Just when Sandra Bullock thinks she's out, she gets pulled back in.
In 2002, after snagging the ultimate romantic-comedy catch (Hugh Grant) in "Two Weeks Notice," the actress decided it was time to kiss off an increasingly cliché-riddled genre.
"They're not funny, they're not romantic, they're not written well for women anymore," she says, explaining her decision in typically no-bull fashion. "It was basically all crap. I did the last good one. I'm done."
It had been a passionate box-office affair that began in earnest with the charms of 1995's "While You Were Sleeping." It lasted through the supernatural high jinks of 1998's "Practical Magic," the mild diversions of 1999's "Forces of Nature" and the good-natured goofiness of 2000's "Miss Congeniality."
But Bullock, whose 45th birthday arrives next month, made it clear she wanted a clean break from the laugh track and instead flirted with Oscar-worthy drama (2004's "Crash") or wistful fantasy (2006's "The Lake House"). Even the 2005 sequel to "Miss Congeniality" ditched any romantic elements.
But then she received a proposal. Or rather, "The Proposal," opening next Friday (sneak previews started Saturday). The role of Margaret Tate, a high-maintenance book editor from Canada who blackmails her put-upon assistant into marrying her to avoid deportation, proved to be an offer that she couldn't refuse. But only after she turned it down more times than Doris Day rejected Rock Hudson's advances.
"Finally, someone said, 'Look, you can't say no if you haven't read it. Just read it, and then we can pass,' " she says. Surprisingly, "It piqued my interest."
For one thing, Margaret wasn't another girl next door. She's more an overbearing ogress in the corner office you secretly covet. Her cutting remarks, such as telling an INS agent that he has "a roomful of gardeners and delivery boys to tend to," have caused audiences to gasp.
As Bullock observes, "Being nice and adorable isn't funny. I enjoyed being a b****. Everyone does. They are always better written and it's a relief."
Little by little, other pieces fell into place, and the actress realized she'd been seduced — not unlike how husband Jesse James, 39, her heavily tattooed motorhead husband of nearly four years and onetime host of the Discovery Channel's Monster Garage, wore down her resistance to his rough outward appearance with a series of courtly e-mails.
She kept waiting for something to go awry, and it never did. First, friend Ryan Reynolds ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine") was mentioned as the male lead. "That's when you go, 'I don't want anyone else to do it,' " she says. "Then I was sure that they would screw up the rest of the casting. And they didn't. Then they said, 'Here's this woman director we like, Anne Fletcher. Can she come and meet you?' I met her and within five minutes, she said the word 'vagina,' and I'm like (her voice rising giddily), 'I love her.' "
The feeling is mutual as Fletcher notes that Bullock, still adept at physical humor as her dockside descent down a rickety wooden ladder in nosebleed-high Louboutin heels in "The Proposal" proves, has yet to be replaced in Hollywood's pantheon of top funny ladies.
"She has charisma and likability that you can't buy or learn," she says. "The soul of who she is as a person comes out on screen. She doesn't mind looking like a fool if it's best for the movie."
A Breath of Fresh Air
Bullock's return to comedy has clearly brightened her mood. A happy energy fills the suite of the Four Seasons, perhaps the result of early word of mouth that has been glowing. Her outfit reflects her upbeat state of mind. The tomboy in her might enjoy hopping on a Honda off-road dirt bike now and then. But, today, she's a vision in girly-girl glam with cascading tendrils of casually tossed hair, a sexy one-shoulder top, a flowery skirt that clings like a second skin and stiletto power shoes that swaddle her feet in chic gray suede.
Remark on her footwear's wow factor and her down-to-earthiness comes out: "I only buy shoes if they can go with more than one outfit, like jeans. Otherwise, never mind."
Her wardrobe might be flexible, but she remains stubbornly wary of labeling "The Proposal" as a romantic comedy. "It's a comedy that has romance in it," she insists. "When you say romantic comedy, everyone cringes."
Screwball comedy? That label is more to her liking, given that she and Reynolds spend much of the film engaged in the sort of rhythmic banter that was perfected by the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in the '30s and '40s.
"I've never had a dance partner like Sandra Bullock," says Reynolds, 32, who has done the romantic-comedy two-step before in "Van Wilder," "Just Friends" and "Definitely, Maybe." "It is incredibly rare someone as gorgeous as Sandra is so capable of self-effacing humor. My theory is that she has no idea of how gorgeous she is. She has a full life outside of Hollywood. The audience taps into that."
Screwball or romantic, there is at least one sign of progress in "The Proposal's" depiction of a relationship. Save for a snide aside by Andrew's 90-year-old "gammy" (the irrepressible Betty White), little is made of Margaret being older than Andrew — a reality reflected in Bullock's own marriage to James, who is five years younger. "The word cougar makes me want to throw up in my mouth," she says.
She often finds promoting her films to be a grind. "The worst thing is when the film stinks, you know it and they know it. But we pretend we don't know it." But doing publicity for The Proposal has been a breeze. That's in spite of everyone, including a nervously tittering Matt Lauer on the Today show this week, asking about the same scene: Bullock, fresh from the shower, and Reynolds, stripped down after a workout, accidentally bump into each fully naked, and she flops atop of him. It might be PG-13 nudity with all their naughtiest bits coyly covered, but given that the actress generally shuns such exposure, it's memorable nonetheless.
Pro that she is, she has quips at the ready. "Do I know Ryan? I know him more now than I ever have. He does have a birthmark and it's oddly shaped. If you like a guy who looks like that and is nice and talented and all that. Fine. If that's your thing. It's so not my thing. So that is why I was able to distance myself from it. It didn't become sexually charged, you know."
Asked if that is what she told her husband, she retorts, "Ryan would like to be married to Jesse. There is a bond there."
Reynolds, wed to Scarlett Johansson, can't deny the appeal of a macho dude who is supposedly related to the same-name outlaw and custom-builds motorcycles that sell for up to $150,000. "She knows I call him my husband. No other guy on Earth can walk into a room and make every other male blush. He is the modern incarnation of McGyver and an amazing businessman. He looks tough, but when you meet him he's a puppy dog."
The Time Off Helped
Type-A perfectionist Bullock might have suffered from career burnout in 2002, which led to a year-and-a-half break from movies. But she is in a better place, whether it's in Long Beach, Calif., where she and James live across the street from his first wife, Karla, and their kids, Chandler, 14, and Jesse Jr., 11.
Or it's in Austin, where she has made her home for the past 11 years and finds satisfaction in Bess Bistro, the eatery she owns and designed.
Though she continues producing films — her next release is "All About Steve," an offbeat tale of a crossword expert who latches on to a CNN reporter that opens Sept. 4 — she devotes herself to other interests and causes.
She adopts handicapped dogs from local shelters and is addicted to "buying and restoring old architectural gems that are left dilapidated and finding ways to use them." She's rebuilding a New Orleans high school wrecked by Hurricane Katrina, and is about to restore her first Big Easy house as well.
Told that it will take more than a romantic-comedy hiatus for the actress to lose the title of America's Sweetheart, Bullock makes gagging noises before striking a compromise.
"If a sweetheart can drop the F-bomb every once in a while, I accept that. I'll (bleeping) take it and I'll (bleeping) run with it and I'm (bleeping) happy you said that. And I'm so (bleeping) tired of answering questions about being (bleeping) naked. Thank you."