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Moviegoers take pleasure in fantasy

There is no such thing as a critic being right or wrong. He expresses his opinion, and that's that. Yet when "Indecent Proposal" took off into the box office stratosphere, the showbiz analysts chortled that the critics had missed the boat. The film opened to nearly unanimous negative reviews, and yet the public couldn't wait to see it. And the "exit surveys" indicated they liked it, too.

"Indecent Proposal" is, of course, the movie in which Robert Redford offers Demi Moore $1 million for one night of sex. She talks it over with her husband (Woody Harrelson) and they decide that since they really need the money...well, may be it wouldn't be such a bad idea. Since the movie opened, Redford's offer and the price tag have been the subjects of countless jokes on the late-night talk shows, and Oprah Winfrey ran a survey of her viewers indicating that about 50 percent of them would consider taking the money.

As one of very few movie critics who gave "Indecent Proposal" a favorable review, I have been pondering these developments with a certain interest. Like another movie critic who praised the movie (Janet Maslin of the New York Times), I admired the style which its director, Adrian Lyne, brought to what Hollywood calls a "high concept" plot. ("High concept" means the premise can be described in one catchy sentence, preferably short.) I thought it was a great-looking movie and an absorbing job of storytelling even if it was less than profound about its subject matter.

Many of the critical reviews found that the movie shamelessly pandered to the base instincts of the viewers. That was one of the aspects I enjoyed the most. If we are honest we should admit that most good movies pander shamelessly to our base instincts-- that they make us laugh, cry, lust and fear. Pauline Kael was onto something when she used "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" as the title of a book, and suggested that the words, which she saw on an Italian movie poster, "are perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies."

True, the sainted Ms. Kael went on to add, "This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair, when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this." And in the case of "Indecent Proposal," the story is not much more than kiss kiss and bang bang with $1 million sandwiched in the middle. The characters are "underwritten," one critic found, and that is certainly true: We learn only enough about them to understand why one of them has an extra million bucks, and two others cou ld really use it.

Emotional depths remain unplumbed, motivations are shallow, and the whole movie is a set-up for the kind of soft-porn romance that Jackie Collins and her imitators have made so popular.

Then why did I enjoy it? Perhaps because it was directed and acted with such style and sly emotional manipulation that it did work on the pulp level it was aiming for. If we are honest, we must admit that the movies can be a very erotic art form. We sit in the dark, voyeurs, watching the most intimate moments of the beautiful and fascinating people on the screen. We identify with them. We share their experiences. When a movie is really working, we are not aloof, like God. We are involved.

At some level, in some way, in every movie they have ever made, Demi Moore and Robert Redford and every other leading lady and man has invited members of the audience to think, however fleetingly, about what it might be like to be them, or know them, or be their lovers. That is what the lighting and the costuming, the dialog and the casting and the whole idea of movie stars is all about. One of the differences between most stars and most character actors is that the movies present the stars as possible s exual partners. (Of course all theories have their limitations, and this one does not account for Ma and Pa Kettle).

The flood of newspaper articles and talk show segments about the $1 Million Question is evidence of how quickly the premise of "Indecent Proposal" captured our imagination. But of course the whole plot line of the movie is nothing more than the set-up fo r that old joke with the punch line, "We've already established that; now all we're talking about is the price." From a moral point of view (the one point of view this movie avoids), selling your body at any price amounts to more or less the same thing.

And yet in our materialist society, Demi Moore and her architect husband have what would play as an alibi before many juries. They are broke. And his dream project, a house overlooking the sea in Santa Monica, is about to be taken away from him by a ruth less investor. True, the house is astonishingly ugly and looks like it was thrown together by the prop department in an afternoon. But all the same, Demi and Woody are Southern Californians who need to maintain a certain life style, and Redford's million would make all the difference.

Redford himself makes a lot of the difference. It has been observed by some sharp-eyed viewers of the film, from body language cues during their first meeting in the casino boutique, that Moore is attracted to him anyway, even before the million comes up . She likes him because he is handsome, and civilized, and a great flirt--and, of course, because he is Robert Redford. (It is a conceit of all movies that nobody ever recognizes that the stars in them are, in fact, movie stars.) If the Redford role had been played by another actor of more or less the same age--Seymour Cassel, for example, who plays Redford's chauffeur and hit man--the whole plot would be skewed, because nobody on Oprah's show ever fantasizes about sleeping with Seymour Cassel. Let's be blunt. If Demi Moore took the million and slept with Cassel, we'd think she was a whore. But if she takes the million from Redford --why, it's almost as if the money was an excuse for doing what anyone would have done anyway.

(I hope Seymour Cassel will forgive me for using him in this example; he need not feel too insecure, since during the shooting of the film, Redford's agent complained that Cassel, standing next to Redford, "looks too good in that suit.")

All of these questions are the sorts of things it is fun to talk about after seeing a movie. Since most movies these days are self-contained, biodegradable, and over the moment they end, it's refreshing to find one that allows the old-fashioned practice of discussing the plot on your way out of the theater.

It is also fun to see a movie that begins as mercenary sex and ends in unabashed romanticism. The conclusion of the movie, in which Redford and Cassel play their little word game in order to allow Moore to get off the hook and back to the man she really loves, is lovely writing and acting. And the reunion between Moore and Harrelson, while unlikely, is great romanticism. (You would have to be a churl to ask why Harrelson just happens to be sitting there at dawn by the seaside in the most sacred shrine of his marriage. For that matter, you would have to be an anal-retentive literalist to ask how it got to be dawn all of a sudden.)

Sometimes when people are talking about certain old movies, they get a little smile on their face, and you realize they are recollecting a guilty pleasure. They know the movie wasn't any masterpiece, and they probably even know why. But dammit all, for two hours it created a fantasy which absorbed them, and allowed them dreams and reveries, fantasies and even lust, and so it has become a pleasant part of their memories. "Indecent Proposal" is that kind of movie. Goodness has nothing to do with it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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