It’s an old and nasty joke: At a party, a man approaches a woman and asks if she would sleep with him for $1 million. The woman says, ”I suppose I would.” The man then inquires if she’d sleep with him for $10. The woman says, ”What do you think I am?” To which the man replies, ”We’ve already established that — we’re just haggling over the price.” I thought of that joke while watching Adrian Lyne’s swank, torpid romantic-triangle drama Indecent Proposal, the sort of movie that says — or would like to, anyway — that we’re all whores under the skin.
Diana and David Murphy (Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson), a handsome young couple living in Santa Monica, Calif., need $50,000 to hold on to the dream house they’re building on a secluded piece of waterfront property. (David, an architect, designed the house himself.) In Vegas, they try to win the money on a gambling binge. Instead, they meet John Gage (Robert Redford), a middle-aged billionaire in a James Bond tux who leads them to his posh hotel suite and, over a game of eight ball, makes a casual proposition: He’ll pay $1 million for a night with Diana — no strings attached.
Diana and David nervously run through the ”moral” justifications for accepting such an offer: The sex will be meaningless, their future will be secure, and so on. Nevertheless, part of the reason they end up accepting, the film implies, is that there’s something intoxicating — irresistible, even — about the notion of selling yourself. Gage, a smug, deadpan Mephistopheles, says that everyone can be bought; deep down, he thinks everyone wants to be. Like Lyne’s high-gloss S&M fantasy, 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal creates a chic tableau of naughtiness and then says, ”You’d love to be doing this, wouldn’t you?”
Perhaps we would, if everyone on screen didn’t seem half asleep. With its svelte, expensive look — all chromium edges and marble extravagance — Indecent Proposal has the feel of something left over from the designer ’80s, and it tries to manipulate us in a glib, ’80s way. The movie is a series of signifiers; we’re supposed to watch Diana and David rolling around in bed on a pile of dollar bills and think, ”Oooh, hot!”
At the beginning, Lyne lures us in by showcasing the subtle financial tensions in the Murphys’ marriage. These two are so obsessed with building their dream house that they’re forced to question how they would feel about each other if they couldn’t afford it. (Answer: Not as good.) It’s this vulnerability that makes them ripe for a hustler like Gage, who seduces people by flaunting his wealth. Redford, fingering $10,000 gold casino chips, is terrific in the early scenes. Like Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko, he has that aura of money that’s almost tactile — even in his dark suit, he glows — and he speaks with the dry enticement of someone who has had too much of what he wants and now gets his kicks by testing people, living through their experiences.
Diana boards a helicopter and is whisked away to Gage’s luxury yacht off the California coast. The next morning she returns to David, and soon after that the marriage begins to fall apart — and the movie along with it. As the vapors of decadent, money-fueled lust fade, Gage’s night with Diana becomes a kind of moral tapeworm, eating away at the Murphys’ relationship. David, possessed by jealousy, drives Diana out of the marriage; she responds by falling back into the arms of her billionaire lover. The plot depends on some bald contrivances. When the Murphys discover that their real estate has been repossessed, why don’t they just take some of their million dollars and buy more land? And why does Diana return to Gage, anyway? We certainly don’t get a clue from Moore’s droopy performance.
Still, what’s most irksome about Indecent Proposal is how the movie loses its nastiness, its sleaze. Gage turns out to be less a bad guy than another inscrutable Redford romantic, a corporate Gatsby; even when he plays a ”villain” this actor needs the safety net of his golden-boy nobility. As for Moore and Harrelson, they’re earnest, attractive, and too bland to bring anything but canned passion to their rotely scripted marital spats. Indecent Proposal starts out kinky and turns into a languid — and shockingly banal — domestic soap opera. Like 9 1/2 Weeks, the movie is all tease, all come-on. Next time Lyne should try for something a little more indecent. C