Indecent Proposal

WFTB Score: 6/20

The plot: Happily married and very much in love, David and Diana Murphy discover love doesn’t pay the bills when recession hits. The couple head to Las Vegas to gamble their way out of trouble, but when that tactic (predictably!) doesn’t work, high roller John Gage comes up with a startling suggestion: 1 million dollars for a single night of passion with Diana. Although the couple dismiss the idea, it does offer a way out of their financial woes; on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that either of them will be able to cope with the aftermath.

Though high school sweethearts David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore) married young, they appear to be a perfect match: he’s an architect, she sells real estate. David has plans for a dream house and Diana knows where he can build it, but they stretch themselves financially to make the dream real; and when the economy goes bust, they suddenly find themselves $45,000 short in the face of a $50,000 bill.

In desperation, the couple head off to Vegas with their last five grand and David miraculously gets half way towards their target, while Diana eyes up some pretty dresses and billionaire playboy John Gage (Robert Redford) eyes her up in turn. The next day Lady Luck deserts David, leaving them flat broke, though John ‘borrows’ Diana for luck while recklessly placing million-dollar bets. The loan evidently puts an idea in his head, for later that night he puts the titular proposal to David and Diana. They are both mortally offended, naturally, but after a sleepless night Diana agrees to have sex with John for the sake of her and David’s future plans and David’s lawyer friend Jeremy (Oliver Platt) draws up a contract.

Diana’s whisked off to John’s luxury boat, while David frets in the casino. In the following days, the couple discover that John has not only robbed them of their marital security and trust, he’s also bought up their house and land; David is unable to forget the pact he made with the Devil and the pair fall apart, not helped by John’s ruthless pursuit of his wife. As David struggles to get his act together and Diana starts appearing on John’s arm, the relationship appears doomed to end in divorce – and what good is money if the love’s gone?

Indecent Proposal is constructed around a very simple question: What would you do? It’s clearly designed to get moviegoing couples and groups asking each other whether they would be prepared to pimp out their partners, or themselves, for a cool million dollars, and to that end the film answers its own question pretty well. The film doesn’t linger on the act – in fact, a discreet veil’s drawn over John and Diana’s indecency – but instead concentrates on the aftermath of the couple’s decision to let John buy Diana’s body for a few hours.

Harrelson is pretty good as the unhappy cuckold consumed with jealousy at giving his wife to another man, though – this being 1993 – the shadow of Cheers still hangs over him, and to an extent the film follows a believable path as neither David nor Diana can bring themselves to touch the dirty money they ‘won’ in Vegas. The story is told with a ‘near the end’ frame and a helpful (if fitful) narrative from both David and Diana, and there is enough chemistry between the two to make us feel something for their plight, if that’s the right word for their self-inflicted situation. And arching over the whole movie is the larger question of whether everything – sacred vows, trust, love, friendship – can be bought with sufficient cash: does everyone really ‘have their price’?

The problem is, Indecent Proposal is nearly two hours long and the central moral issue can’t sustain itself through the running time. It’s half an hour before John pops the question, during which time we’ve established a link between sex and money in a second glossily-shot sex scene, and had plenty of time to ask why a supposedly bright couple would try to defy the odds by gambling away the little cash they had in Vegas. Then, both during and after the act, the film dawdles along with nothing much to say as it slowly plays out the aftermath of the decision to take Gage’s money, with a number of daft, dragging scenes (John shows Diana round his pad, John – cringingly – invades her citizenship class full of stereotyped immigrants, David starts to reassemble his life by teaching) until it suddenly introduces a hippo motif and, before we know it, Billy Connolly is auctioning off the contents of a zoo!

Although the screenplay lacks focus (we hear ‘Have I ever told you I love you?’ far more than we need to), the film is let down more by a lazy, unmotivated turn from a slightly grizzled and very bored-looking Redford – though, since all he ever seems to say is ‘Let me show you something’, you can hardly blame him. Redford’s Gage is simply a man with a lot of money, the inert catalyst for change in the Murphys’ marriage who is as empty, character-wise, as his massive house, so you feel neither sympathy nor enmity towards him.

Though Demi Moore tries harder than Redford, she is used little better in the key role of Diana. Director Adrian Lyne makes sure she looks fantastic at all times – indeed, the film often has the glossy look of a soft-core feature – but her acting style is strangely cold and forbidding of empathy; in short, she looks far too glamorous to be cash-strapped and desperate, and always seems to know it. Finally, Oliver Platt is amusingly sleazy as the film’s obvious comic relief – Jeremy’s contract, with its “John Garfield” clause, is icky but also funny.

As you can read, I dislike Pretty Woman, but at least Garry Marshall’s film has a brash, colourful 80s warmth and Gere’s billionaire has some history and charm behind his wealth. Indecent Proposal‘s prostitution is of a different kind, a slick, soulless affair in both plot and execution, the torpid involvement of Robert Redford proving a misstep in the venerable actor/director’s career. Still, as the movie suggests, we all have to do things we rather wouldn’t to pay our way in the world.

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