Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, April 28, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (1993)

6. Indecent Proposal
With his fifth motion picture, Adrian Lyne went high. “Jacob's Ladder” was a philosophical horror movie, that weaved in themes of religious damnation and spiritual fulfillment into an especially nightmarish film. Audiences weren't crazy about it. I have no idea if Lyne made a deliberate decision following the film's just-okay box office performance. Maybe he was genuinely passionate about adapting Jack Engelhard's trashy romance novel. But it's easy to imagine Lyne decided he'd give the people more of the same, more of the “erotic thrillers” that had led him to success before. If that was the case, it worked. “Indecent Proposal” would become a massive box office success and a genuine pop culture phenomenon in 1993. Every movie Lyne made from this point on is at least partially about sex.

Diana and David were high school sweethearts. They married shortly after graduating. Their love is a blissful one. However, money is hard to come by. David's dream of becoming an architect is a difficult to fulfill. Desperate for cash, the Murphys head to Las Vegas. They win most of the money they need just to end up loosing it the next day. That's when Diana catches the eye of John Gage, a handsome and dashing millionaire. Gage presents the happy couple with a proposal – you could even say an indecent proposal. If Diana spends one night with him, in his bed, he will write the couple a check for a million dollars. The offer will challenge the Murphys' marriage.

There's a lot to be said about “Indecent Proposal's” premise. It is, however, undeniably a catchy concept. The story asks the age old question of what would you pick, given the chance: Love or money? It's a story that has sex, romance, intrigue, and a dashing billionaire. I know my dad, in one of his more dumb-ass moods, asked my mom what she would do in this situation. I think every couple in the country at the time did the same thing. In one scene, the happy couple's lawyer hears about the deal. He's talking to a pair of successful Hollywood screenwriters at the time. It's easy to imagine the writers immediately rushing off and pitching a movie about that very premise.

As catchy as the film's premise is, it's also undeniably sexist. “Indecent Proposal's” entire concept hinges on a husband being willing to trade his wife for money. As if she's property or something. Though there's much debate in the film about the choice being a mutual decision, or Diana doing it for the good of their marriage, she never seems disgusted by the offer. She's never aghast at the idea of her husband and another man treating her as an object that has a price tag. Instead of treating John Gage as a disgusting pig who only values a woman as another thing to own, Diana is slowly won over by him. The film's tension hangs on which guy she'll choose. Not that her husband, who comes off as jealous and unreasonably preoccupied with sex, is that much better of a choice.

Not only is the premise pretty gross, it's also not really enough to sustain a feature length motion picture. It takes about a half-hour for Diane and David to meet Gage. It doesn't take very long for him to make his titular proposal. Before the first hour is up, the decision is made, the wife has slept with the millionaire, and the husband has been made a cuckold. For all the years I had heard about this movie, I just assumed the debate over what to do occupied most of the movie. The central tension is resolved pretty early on, leaving the film to spin its wheel to fill the rest of the two hour long run time. I have no idea how Engelhard filled an entire novel with it.

Despite what I had heard, “Indecent Proposal” is less about sex than I expected. The film is, in fact, a rather mopey romantic melodrama. John Gage presents himself as a sad boy at heart, a millionaire who can buy everything except... Love. The film's climatic scene, where Gage tells Diane that she's just his latest million dollar conquest, isn't meant to reveal him as the kind of scumbag who would literally buy a woman. Instead, he lets her go because he really does love her. David, meanwhile, spends the entire second half of the movie, moping in his empty apartment. It's all rather overwrought and incredibly histrionic.

By 1993, Adrian Lyne knew how to make a slick looking movie. Which “Indecent Proposal” definitely is. Lyne utilizes some of the same tricks he uses in “Jacob's Ladder.” While in the casino, he assumes the perspective of a spinning roulette wheel. Not long afterwards, we get a close-up of craps dice flying across the table in slow motion. He fills the movie full of images like a widescreen ocean vistas, painted gold by the setting sun overhead. Or the blinding lights of the casino blurring around David as he runs back towards Gage's hotel room. Visually speaking, “Indecent Proposal” is exactly as melodramatic as is its script. I imagine Lyne was all too aware of that.

In fact, the movie even seems to occasionally nod that it knows exactly how ridiculous this material is. There are odd burst of goofy, comic relief in the film. Oliver Platt's character, the Murphy's lawyer, is a frequent source of humor. He says the wrong things at the wrong times and lives in a ridiculous apartment. At one point, he takes David to dinner at a Vegas show which includes giant, talking, robotic trees and Buddai statues. A yawning hippo toy becomes a pivotal symbol of... something. As if to signal that he knows this stuff is very silly, Lyne also includes completely inexplicable cameos from comedic figures like Billy Connelly and Rip Taylor.

As I said, there's way less sex in “Indecent Proposal” than I expected. We never actually see Diana and John Gage consummate their million dollar deal. The sexy sex happens between a kiss and a fade-to-black. However, we do see the Murphys in the throes of passion several times. One especially protracted scenes occurs on the kitchen floor, make-up sex after an argument. Later, the two couple in a hotel bedroom, with all the billowing curtains, blue color-coding, and cross-fades you'd expect from a nineties erotic thriller. Lyne knows how to meet expectations for this stuff. It is, admittedly, sexier than anything in “9 ½ Weeks.” I'll give it that.

“Indecent Proposal” is built around three central characters. How do these performances fare? The script does not do Woody Harrelson any favors. David is a shockingly inactive protagonist. He gives in to the millionaire's ideas very quickly. He spends most of the movie pining for his wife and being jealous over what she's done. There's even a pretty silly subplot where he teaches an architecture class. Harrelson is entirely earnest though, bringing a lot of down-to-earth charm to his performance. It nearly saves a shockingly underwritten part.

Demi Moore's performance in “Indecent Proposal” was pretty harshly criticized upon the film's release. It is not Moore that fails the film but the screenplay. Diana's inner life is never explored. Her decision to sleep with Gage for the money is given the briefest of justification. The shift she undergoes, from hating the millionaire to possibly being in love with him, happens entirely off-screen. No explanation is never given for her change of heart. So Moore isn't given very much to work with. She has a few funny scenes with Harrelson. Mostly, she's left to look gorgeous and deliver limply written dialogue.

Rounding out the main trio is Robert Redford as John Gage. Casting Redford in the part was a very deliberate move: Old enough to be potentially off-putting to the young wife but still sexually attractive enough that you can imagine her being excited by him. Redford turns on the charm whenever he's on-screen. He flashes that famous smile and never acts greasy or sleazy. I guess that works considering what happens but seems totally at odds with the story's events. Even an actor as capable as Redford is unable to sell any emotion in the part. Gage is as undefined as any other character in the film.

Lyne's “Flashdance” and “Fatal Attraction” were both huge hits. Each spawned quite a few parodies and homages. “Indecent Proposal” would similarly be meet with goofs and jokey tributes. In fact, riffs on the concept would become a stock plot for sitcoms around the time. While Lyne's other features rise above their status as pop culture touchstones, even if only a little, “Indecent Proposal” ultimately has very little to offer. It's a silly movie with an overblown execution and a very uninspiring screenplay. All the billowing curtains in the world couldn't make a script this thin into a good movie. [Grade: C]

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