FILM / An offer she couldn't refuse: Adam Mars-Jones on Indecent Proposal

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The Independent Culture
'How could you?' asks Jeremy the lawyer (Oliver Platt), when he hears that his old buddy David has agreed to let a plutocrat sleep with his adorable wife, Diana, in exchange for a million dollars. Since Indecent Proposal (15) is the sort of movie that fondly imagines it will set off fierce moral discussions among those who see it (Would you do it? You would? I can't believe you just said that] I guess I really don't know you at all), this seems to be a reasonable reproach - if a little severe-sounding coming from a lawyer. It takes a lot to get a moral position out of a lawyer. But no, false alarm. The question turns out to be: 'How could you negotiate without me?' Jeremy reckons he could have got dollars 2m for one night with Diana, easy.

For about five ripely satirical minutes the film trashes the values it endorses the rest of the time with high production values and TV-movie earnestness. When Jeremy says 'Let's get the moral issue out of the way,' he is referring to his fee. There's a droll scene in which Jeremy goes through, with the desirous plutocrat, John Gage (Robert Redford), a legally binding contract for the night of adultery. There's even a 'John Garfield clause' that anticipates the possibility of him dropping dead in the act.

This little flurry of cynicism sends the signal that the film's makers, director Adrian Lyne and screenwriter Amy Holden Jones (who adapted a novel by Jack Engelhard), don't take the story seriously. But they have no basis for a conspiratorial relationship with the viewer; they certainly don't have the courage to camp things up. Personally I prefer it when schlock doesn't wink at me and expect to be given credit for its insincerity. Give me schlock if you must, but give it to me straight.

The film starts with His and Hers voice-overs - an ominous sign. When a film tries to give us two points of view, it usually ends up giving us no point of view at all. Woody Harrelson, moreover, is wildly miscast as the initially complaisant, subsequently agonised husband. Harrelson's successful roles, as Woody in Cheers on television and as a hustling basketball player in White Men Can't Jump, have incorporated a sizeable element of bewildered immaturity, even - let's face it - idiocy. This seems to be wise, even if his hick manner sometimes turns out to be deceptive. Harrelson's very first facial expression in Indecent Proposal, sitting morosely on a pier with all his dreams shattered, will make audiences think that Woody has just been told his favourite cow died, back home in Indiana.

His character turns out at a relatively late stage of the film to be not only an architect (we knew that) but a strikingly talented one, past winner of the Prix de Rome and a gifted and inspirational lecturer. This does not convince. He is also given a fierce temper, or at any rate he gets the chance at one point to throw a bottle of wine across a kitchen. But the only thing in the whole film that is really compatible with Harrelson's persona is his character's idea of how to get out of debt (the recession has hit them hard): they'll go to Las Vegas and gamble away what little money they can lay their hands on. In the casino John Gage is waiting, with his surplus millions and his suave challenge to marital fidelity.

Demi Moore gets to revisit some tearful moments from Ghost. In one odd scene she starts doing the washing-up, for no plausible reason, at a critical moment. Then all is explained, when her husband throws that bottle and stalks out. She bursts into tears. In a career that has had more than its fair share of crying scenes, she has never before wiped her eyes with yellow rubber gloves.

To be fair, her character in the new film has more backbone than the heroine of Ghost, and perhaps that is progress, something to be proud of. But the problem with the sexual politics of Indecent Proposal is not that the female character is weak - she makes her own choices and lives with the consequences, while David falls apart. But the whole situation has a misogynist spin on it: if a woman can sleep with a stranger and not be destroyed by the experience, then it shows that women are good at lying with their bodies. On the other hand if her husband is torn apart by jealousy, that doesn't make him irrational and hypocritical (since he approved of the bargain), it just shows that he loved her more than he ever realised.

Robert Redford is the only person in the movie, aside from Jeremy in his glorious five minutes, who seems to be having any fun. Redford brings a surprising lightness and grace to a role that is tattily characterised in the script, veering in seconds from Machiavelli to Gatsby. As Redford plays the part, life is inherently a comedy for the rich. They can fall in love, but all that means is the genre of their lives shifts a little, to romantic comedy. They never lose their knowing distance.

In effect Indecent Proposal hedges its bets, by combining a self-consciously moral tale about the devil tempting Mr and Mrs America with a romantic fantasy about a woman who is offered the world and all its riches, and chooses instead what she is used to. The film is even evasive about the source of Gage's wealth. At one stage Diana describes him as the American dream come true, which would imply that he is self-made, but everything about him bespeaks old money. He has no past struggles to look back on, any more than he has past entanglements. It is only Redford's practised coppery charm that gives him the slightest reality.

Whatever the source of his wealth, though, the camera certainly loves its accoutrements. When Gage passes Diana, whom he has only just met, a million dollars' worth of chips to bet on his behalf, the already splendid gesture is given still more glory by the little wooden case the chips come in. In their luxurious box they look like after-dinner mints.

Adrian Lyne is not so much a film director as a zeitgeist hound, looking for a melodrama that will repeat the success of Fatal Attraction. But there's nothing in Indecent Proposal half as potent as the sexual paranoia that the earlier film tapped into. If Lyne has put himself into the film, it is not as one of the agonised principals but as inglorious Jeremy, who will always land on his feet with his pockets full.

(Photograph omitted)

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