When the boss wants her sex in the office

Cinema

"THE WAY we talk about sex now, we need the UN to supervise," rants Demi Moore, at one of the multiple climaxes of Disclosure (18). It is a smart line, and typical of a film that is intent on having it all ways - including having it in the company vice-president's office. Moore plays Meredith Johnson, a femme fatale in a power suit, who celebrates her promotion to VP of a Seattle computer firm by sexually harassing Michael Douglas, a disappointed rival for her job. Feminist alarm bells rightly ring at this point (it is hardly a typical case), but the movie takes care to muffle them. In that line about the UN, both Moore and the film are shifting the blame. "I am a sexually aggressive woman, and I like it," Moore goes on, suggesting her abuse of power is in fact a form of feminist empowerment. And the film, ever anxious to defuse danger, is asking us not to take sides - male or female - but to unite against the common enemy of political correctness.

Untrue to its name, Disclosure covers itself at every turn. That may be the reason it failed to generate the expected media debate and blockbuster box-office in the US. It is a much more scrupulous movie than Fatal Attraction, which shamelessly played on sexual antagonism to hook its audience. In Disclosure, Barry Levinson has turned Michael Crichton's bestseller into a movie of calculated swank and precision.

Michael Douglas plays a variation on his roles in Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Falling Down. He has become the cinema's everyman: louche but likeable, and forever screwing his face into a petulant moue at the siren songs of sexually voracious women. Typically, Paul Attanasio's script is careful to give Douglas's Tom Saunders a suggestion of frailty. We see him in the film's opening scene with his wife and children: a good family man, but with a hint of hubris, and (we later find out) a spectacularly promiscuous past. He's a caring husband but also a touch patronising ("Honey, could you go down and get me a beer"); a considerate boss, who yet has an absent-minded way of patting his secretary on the bottom. There is an air of sleaze about him as sure as the rumpled, slightly stained clothes that make him stand out amid the sleek suits at work.

Demi Moore has a less well-rounded character - hardly a character at all. It is as if, in order to avoid the sort of demonisation that Fatal Attraction went in for with Glenn Close, the film-makers have left Moore a blank. The best femmes fatales seduce the audience along with the hero - drawing them on with their mixture of vulnerability and wile, innocence and fathomless evil. Disclosure is too loaded against Moore from the start, so that later scenes, when she puts her side of the story to a legal tribunal, fall flat, through lack of tension. And the source of her malignity is left largely a mystery.

Moore's blankness, like everything else, feels meticulously planned. Paul Attanasio's screenplay, following his work on Quiz Show, establishes him as one of brightest writers to emerge in years. The film is well-paced and full of snappy one-liners. Some of the best go to Donald Sutherland, who plays the company boss with a close-groomed beard and a Machiavellian smile. "This is America, goddamn it," he wails, as Douglas starts to put legal pressure on the firm. "The law is supposed to protect people like me." Attanasio spreads the aphorisms a little too liberally: everybody is a sparkling wit, from the office-boy upwards. And the dialogue rarely breaks from the movie's "themes" (power, greed, gender), so that the characters sometimes seem like mere mouthpieces. That may be the reason so little heat is generated between Douglas and Moore, even in their sex scene.

Fans of Levinson's more personal projects, such as Diner, may be disappointed at his transformation into schlock merchant. But you have to admire the slickness of his work, and its artful, melodramatic editing. He's able to draw on a superbly eerie and suspenseful Ennio Morricone score. It saves the worst scene in the movie, in which Douglas views documents through a virtual reality headset which bizarrely introduces him to a bearded colleague dressed as an angel. Otherwise, Disclosure rarely slips up. Levinson and Attanasio have drawn the anti-feminist sting from Crichton's grimly mechanical novel, and replaced it with wit and style. It's hard to ask for more.

In Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (15), Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) delivers a piece of characteristically gloomy light verse which might stand as the movie's motto: "If I abstain from fun and such / I'll probably amount to much." For a movie about a group renowned for their wit and conviviality - the writers who lunched at the Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s (see Review, page 15) - Mrs Parker is an unrelievedly dismal affair. It as if the director, Alan Rudolph, had decided before he started that Dorothy and her cronies didn't "amount to much" after all. The members of the round table seem to be not only boorish, but frequently boring. Their wit is more cruel than enlightening, and their aperus largely conventional. The circle turns out to be rather square. Though it may be true, it doesn't make two hours of their company any less tiresome.

The dreariest of these drones is Mrs Parker herself. Jennifer Jason Leigh's Dotty stumbles through the film, peering out at us through a mist of alcohol and resentment, her most cheerful demeanour a kind of defeated ruefulness at what a poor show life is. Wit seems to leak out of her, like pus from a wound. Jason Leigh's extraordinary delivery pitches the lines somewhere between a mumble and a drawl, with the occasional weird gurgle. It's supposed to be based on close study of Parker's recorded voice, but only rings true in the later scenes, where she conveys a convincingly raddled old age. For most of the film, she has to be heard to be disbelieved.

What we get is a Parker pathology - the complete, intricate network of her neuroses. They ranged from being a woman to (we suspect) not quite being an artist: "I don't think that word [artist] is elastic," she laments. "If I did, I'd be better company." The best scenes chronicle Dotty's unconsummated passionate relationship with Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), who was the open, bracingly sane sort of person she could never be - and the bastion of male solidity she wished she'd been. For the most part, though, it is a life of accidie and world-weariness, which by the end of the film becomes infectious.

It is an open question whether it's harder to decipher the speech of Jason Leigh's Mrs Parker or of Jodie Foster's wild girl Nell (PG). Having grown up in the woods, Nell speaks her own opaque language. After Mrs Parker, you may expect to see her any minute don a cloche hat. But, in fact, she comes to represent, in the film's eyes, and those of the two doctors who monitor her (Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson), an ideal of purity and independence, the antithesis of corrupt and polluted society. The thesis is simplistic, but the film is attractively photographed, with plenty of National Geographic-type shots of woods and waters. Foster gives a subtle, affecting performance as a sort of Bride of Gump (inevitably, she's won an Oscar nomination - on the disabled ticket). With its promotion of kindness and lack of violence, the film is soothing, even beautiful, but also a touch dull.

I Love a Man in Uniform (18) takes a promising idea - actor playing TV cop takes his uniform on the real-life streets and starts turning into an enforcer - and then gets a little too derivative for its own good. Dirty Harry meets Taxi Driver, and the dialogue begins to sound familiar ("You lay down and close your eyes while the bad boys vomit all over society"). It's still an intelligent and engaging low-budget production.

SFW (18) is a smarter and funnier satire on mass-murder and the media than Natural Born Killers. But that's not saying much. The verdict on both SFW and NBK has to be NVG.

Cinema details: Review, page 58.

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