Spring flings 'Indecent Proposal' shows Redford luster, dimmest of ideas

April 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Indecent Proposal," the slick new Adrian Lyne film, asks: Is everything for sale? The answer it gives is: Yes, except good screenplays.

Largely, it's a gloss on a mean old story that used to make the rounds:

Millionaire at a party goes up to a woman, says, "Would you

sleep with me for a million dollars?" She says, "Yes." He says, "Would you sleep with me for $50?" She says, "What do you think I am, a whore?" He says, "We've already established that. Now we're haggling on the price."

In this case, it's debonair Robert Redford making the pitch, without the haggling. He just puts the million up front, take it or leave it. The wrinkle is that he makes the offer to a married woman and her husband, David and Diane Murphy (Woody Harrelson and and Demi Moore). The film then purports to show what happens as the three, each in his own way, deal with the substance of what's happened.

Actually, the word "substance" shouldn't appear anywhere in a review of "Indecent Proposal." It has none. It's vapors for the eyes, not food for the brain. Occasionally amusing and more commonly irritating, it's always beautiful in that particularly offensive empty-headed way of the contemporary big budget studio film, and almost complete trash.

Redford is by far the best thing in the movie, even if he seems somewhat bemused to find himself in such a seedy enterprise.

It's nice to see him play a character with some darkness, even if by movie's end he's returned to the precincts of sanctimony. He's elegant and confident and can still unload a smile that'll sear through three camera filters to burn a hole in the film stock. He seems to be enjoying himself mightily.

He plays John Gage, a slightly sleazy billionaire whose hobby is women and gambling and, occasionally, gambling on women. He doesn't make any attempt, thank God, to get us to like Gage; instead, Gage is simply what he is, a predator in well-tailored suits (great suits, in fact), isolated from moral concern or consequence by his great wealth. He's sloppy about others, not mean-spirited but largely lacking a gift of empathy. He's no longer Jay Gatsby; he's become Tom Buchanan.

His prey is less impressive. Poor, overmatched Harrelson is David Murphy, a young, struggling architect, who has decided to gamble everything by investing in his own dream house, to showcase his talents. Unfortunately, he loses his job and can't make payments on the half-built property, so he and his loving wife, Diana, decide to borrow $5,000 from his father and . . . go to Las Vegas?

What -- they think people actually win in Las Vegas? This idiocy almost totally alienates them from our sympathy to begin with.

Then, Woody Harrelson never seems much more than the Adonis-beautiful boy-man he is on "Cheers." Architect? You wouldn't trust this boy to find an outhouse, much less design one. And it's a true absurdity of the script in which he and Demi Moore are ultimately seen as victims.

They are, but only in a parochially Hollywood sense: They made a deal and it didn't turn out the way they thought it would! That's something only a producer would understand!

The deal is offered them when they lose everything on a spin of the wheel. Does it occur to anyone that these idiots deserve the fate they have so richly earned?

Anyway, Redford has glimpsed Moore in a shop and later in the casino. Taken, he sweeps in and puts the offer on the table as straightforwardly as if he were buying a car. The Murphys, of course, turn it down indignantly, but overnight the weight of all that temptation crushes their frail little spines and they wake up and go for it.

The consummation of the deal is handled discreetly; we do not have to look at Robert Redford's chest or rear end. (Typically, Moore is the movie's only sex object.) But from there on, the movie divides into two different modes: On the one hand, it's an acerbic comedy on the obscene freedom and cynicism wealth confers that's occasionally quite funny; and on the other, it's a kind of whiny evocation of one boy's pain.

Poor, mopey Woody, it seems to say; he sold his wife for a million bucks and now he's lost her and doesn't want the money. By 1993 Hollywood standards, this is true tragedy: He doesn't want the money!

Lyne wastes entirely too much time on this poor schnook weepingly pondering his mistake as he tries to rebuild his life and take up architecture again, as if he was any good in the first place (no evidence offered). There's one massively unconvincing scene where he lectures on architecture. It's like one of those infomercials for shady promoters on late-night cable TV -- completely wrong, weirdly fascinating.

As naughty as the film pretends to be, it's basically pretty sanctimonious. A more radical script might have given it a darker edge, made it more consistently funny.

"Indecent Proposal"

Starring Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson.

Directed by Adrian Lyne.

Released by Paramount.

Rated R.

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