Indecent Proposal

indecent-proposal-214489lSome movies are critic-proof, and sometimes that’s for the best. Indecent Proposal, the much-talked-about new film by Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction), has been dealt a generally lukewarm reception from reviewers. So I was a little surprised at how good it turned out to be. The movie is sure to provoke endless arguments among feminists, between husbands and wives, and on talk shows, but it taps into emotions that go beyond sensationalism. That’s partly because Lyne, not usually a subtle director, goes against his own grain and doesn’t push us too hard to accept the story. Mostly it’s because Indecent Proposal has no villains — just people who want what they can’t have. The movie is about what happens when they get it.

Most of the audience (especially twentysomethings) will identify immediately with the lead couple, David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore), a happily married and idealistic pair. David, an architect, plans to build his dream house; Diana, a real-estate agent, supports him financially until they apply for a loan to construct the house. Their dreams, however, shatter against the recession, which puts David out of work and renders the Murphys unable to make their payments. Desperate, they go to Las Vegas to try to win the $50,000 they need; they win $25,040 the first night and lose most of it the next day. In this town of losers and winners, these new losers meet the ultimate winner: John Gage (Robert Redford), a billionaire who bets with $10,000 gold chips as if they were nickels.

From there, Indecent Proposal becomes a parable about greed, power, and trust. Adapting a novel by Jack Englehard, scripter Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza) draws on what’s already on our minds: How will David and Diana dig themselves out of their hole? Gage, an overgrown Richie Rich, drops into the scenario like Superman. Over a game of pool, Gage makes the couple an offer: One million dollars for a night with Diana. The way the scene is written and acted (particularly by Redford), the proposal seems not so much indecent as a godsend; you catch yourself urging David and Diana to go along with it. And it’s important that we not feel superior to the couple’s decision, because everything that follows builds on our acceptance that the Murphys feel this is the right move.

Of course, it turns out to be the worst move imaginable. I won’t give away much more of the plot, except to say that the proposal, once acted upon, sows the seeds for a lot of distrust, resentment, and broken objects in the Murphy household. Some critics charged that the movie deteriorates along with the marriage, but these new tensions provide juicy material for the actors. Harrelson, though sometimes too dependent on Raging Bull mannerisms (“Where have you been?”), makes David an insecure cuckold who turns cold, angry, and eventually more resilient. And Moore, in her first genuinely felt performance in a while, gets inside Diana; she always seems to be thinking aloud. When Diana says she only slept with Gage for David, we believe her. The performers help put across a lot of stuff that might be hard to swallow.

Perhaps sensing that modern, enlightened audiences may consider John Gage a scoundrel, screenwriter Jones apologizes for him in the dialogue: David refers to having made “a deal with the devil.” Jones sabotages her most intriguing character this way; she certainly hasn’t written him as the devil. Redford is consistently charming in the role, but that isn’t why we don’t hate Gage. We dislike him because he wrecks a marriage we care about, but his motivations are clear: He has everything but love; he envies Diana and David, who have nothing but love. It’s obvious Gage loves Diana — he even knows just what to say to her in their final scene together. Richer than God, Gage lives in a depressingly vast mansion, all alone. He doesn’t want to end up like Charles Foster Kane, which may be why Jones slyly has Gage deliver a close duplicate of a Citizen Kane speech (“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her”). That he can only get closer to people by buying them makes him, I think, a tragic figure, not the devil.

As I said, Adrian Lyne handles the material with a light touch; this is the first of his films that I’ve enjoyed without feeling excessively handled. There’s still too much TV-commercial slickness in his style, but here he makes it work for him: The money, the elegance, the impersonal, gleaming decor — Lyne gives all of this a cold visual gloss, and we can see why Gage, for all his millions, is miserable. Who’d want to live inside an Adrian Lyne movie? Gradually, Lyne pumps up the glamour until we see how hollow it is compared with a normal, scruffy life like the Murphys’. Indecent Proposal may be typical Hollywood engineering on some level — it pulls us in on the nudge-nudge-wink-wink strength of its premise — but what it does with that premise is more than Hollywood usually manages.

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