Being had both ways

In Disclosure, we are asked to consider the serious question of sexual harassment. We also get to watch. By Adam Mars-Jones
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The Independent Culture
The casting of the lead is one of the coups of Barry Levinson's Disclosure, based on a Michael Crichton novel. You hear they're making a film about a warm family man sexually harassed and in every way pressurised by his female boss, and you splutter, that's outrageous, that's contemptible, that's Iron John backlash opportunistic; when did Hollywood show the slightest interest in the issue of sexual harassment when it was only women's careers at stake? Then you hear that they're casting Michael Douglas in the role of the warm family man, and you think, good luck. Michael Douglas, the eager puppy from The Streets of San Francisco, grown sour and doggy with put-on sexual hunger? If you can make an audience cheer for him, you've done good work.

In its genre, the relatively new one of the Zeitgeist hound movie, the irresponsible riff on a social issue, Disclosure is good work. It's a lot better than another film in which Michael Douglas was the sexual victim, Fatal Attraction, and another in which Demi Moore (who plays the harassing boss in Disclosure) was an object of desire, Indecent Proposal. Barry Levinson no longer looks like the auteur he did when he made Diner, but he is a skilled artisan. Besides, when Michael Crichton gets his teeth into something that really matters to him - not sexual politics and certainly not psychology, but plotting - he knows how to hold the attention. He is helped by the screenwriter, Paul Attanasio who, on the basis of this script and Quiz Show, can turn the soggiest lettuce into a crisp narrative salad, dressed with sharply witty dialogue.

The plot dramatises first the fear that women are sexually predatory, more animal than men and therefore dangerous, and then the fear that women are sexually insincere (able to fake arousal), less animal than men and therefore dangerous. The camera routinely characterises Demi Moore on her first few appearances as high-heels, long legs, tailored silhouette, but hell, that's natural. What red-blooded camera wouldn't do that?

The only trouble is that having drooled over her attractiveness, the film has difficulty clucking its tongue (what with its mouth still being so full of drool) over how violated the hero feels when she pounces on him. It's a sort of rape, after all, and as we know, Hollywood takes the issue of rape very seriously. So what the film does is give him a comedy nightmare in which the founder of the company for which he works (Donald Sutherland) rubs the material of the hero's jacket appreciatively and then sticks a tongue down his throat. Sexual harassment is not about sex, it's about power. Are you clear about that now, or should we shoot the scene again and show Sutherland turning into a disgusting extra terrestrial in a business suit? Yes, I'm clear about that, and I think it's wonderful the way a whiff of male disadvantage clears Hollywood's head.

The dcor and sociology of a high-tech modern office are well observed. Everything looks open plan and unsecretive, but there are glass doors that can be shut when privacy is required. It's still important not to talk in front of the servants, but what that means now is that executives suddenly discuss their wives and kids when they find themselves sharing a lift with staffers from other floors. The hero's team is creative, even a tiny bit grungy (this is Seattle, after all) - they don't wear ties!

This informal group show early on the film that it is possible to have a jocular sexual discussion (in front of a token woman, too) without abusiveness of any kind. One of the guys refers to sex being hard-wired into men's limbic brains, which gives a new reading to the battle of the sexes - as being all about hardware's fear of software.

It's nice to know that men can talk about sex. There are plenty of strong women in the film, notably Caroline Goodall as the hero's wife, who is never shrill in her pain, and often generous from within it, and Roma Maffia as the lawyer specialising in sexual harassment suits who takes his case. There is, though, a real shortage of communication between women. When two women start talking about the Happy to Be Me Barbie, a plastic product to raise the self-esteem of the chunky young, it's only about 10 seconds before a man is talking about male suicide rates.

As the plot unrolls it becomes clear that in Michael Crichton's world sex isn't particularly sexy, and even power isn't much of an improvement on it. What is sexy is high-tech. The showpiece of the hero's creative group is The Corridor, a sort of prototype virtual reality information storage system, and at the climax the hero must venture into it on a quest for the truth. While he's in there looking for the silicone- generated "holy grail" that will explain all, his villainous boss logs on from a different physical location. The most arresting visual element in the film, and one that perhaps tells more truth than it means to, is the sight of a virtual reality Demi Moore advancing unseeingly but implacably to erase the crucial evidence. She is done up in blue neon, and she bears a resemblence to the prototypical female machine in expressionist cinema, the robot from Metropolis. At this moment, it's easy to feel that the lure of virtual reality is eventually the lure of a boys-only world, one from which women, so uncontrollable now in daily life, are excluded.

Disclosure is a melodrama, and comes to a hallowed type of melodramatic conclusion with a bad woman punished and a good one rewarded. It is in the background, though, in apparently neutral conversations, that the male film-makers pump out the mild brain-poisons of their common sense. In a conversation with the hero's wife, his lawyer admits that she said no to her boss (now her husband) five times before she agreed to go out with him. She adds wrily: "Nowadays, if I'd said no once, he'd have been too frightened to ask again." That's the advocate of zero tolerance admitting that America as a nation has gone too far along that path. What more do you want?

There's also a fly plot-strand about the hero's secretary, who has no sense of humour. We see her not getting a joke, and later, we see her not realising that her boss's bottom pats (carried out with a sheaf of papers, not a warm actual hand), are innocent joshing. Consequently she gives evidence against him at a mediation hearing, and only realises her mistake too late. Still, she apologises, he apologises, and miraculously she acquires a sense of humour. Well, OK. But if you think the fuss about sexual harassment would die down if women acquired a sense of proportion, learnt to see the funny side even, your address is virtual reality already.