I’ve seen this film more times than I care to let you know. With each watch, I’ve asked myself: How can such a salacious work be so dreary? Seriously. Why does the yuppie-hugging real estate subplot hold more sway over proceedings than the illicit romance which is the main conceit of the film?
Indecent Proposal is the quintessential ‘watercooler movie’. A high-concept pitch that could start tongues a-wagging in the office after couples had seen it over the opening weekend. If a rich billionaire offered you a substantial sum of money to sleep with your significant other, would you take it? What if you needed the money and the billionaire had the looks of a goddamn movie star, would you give in? This is the premise of Adrian Lyne’s 1993 hit Indecent Proposal. A film in which Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore play a recession-hit couple, who are given the proposition by the ever-handsome Robert Redford.
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One reason I increasingly bring up film critic Roger Ebert in these write-ups is simply because of his ability to capture a mood so eloquently. His mostly positive review of Indecent Proposal is a succulent piece of writing, depicting why we as an audience indulge in a subject matter so crass. As a viewer, we can morally throw away the ethics of giving away the virtues of our partner quite easily. Swiftly living vacuously through the beautiful people on screen, looking to see what they would do with something so scandalous. When in relationships, especially young ones, indulgence in hypothetical high concepts is great. A superb example lies in the sitcom Friends (1994-2004). The top five celebrity list episode is as vulgar as it is relatable. A spousal parlour game we’re happy to play in the knowledge that it isn’t going to happen.
Adrian Lyne successfully became a master of drawing a crowd around such conceits. Particularly in the 80s and 90s. Helming many relationship dramas around controversial themes and ideas. The believable dynamics he’s been able to mine are the cornerstone of why his often provocative, sometimes outrageous erotically charged stories hooked viewers. Fatal Attraction would fail were it not for how well Michael Douglas and Glenn Close play off each other. While the insight into BDSM in 9 ½ Weeks (1986) is perhaps quite outdated, the interplay between Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke is engrossing enough to keep the film watchable. A real high point for Lyne was his direction of Diane Lane to an Oscar in Unfaithful (2002). The two of them sell the sensual abandonment that infidelity can bring almost completely in one deeply memorable scene.
Lyne’s work, even when it falls into histrionics, has been most effective in his ability to mine credibility out of each situation. Even in the ludicrous Deep Water (2022), he finds the danger. Yet with Indecent Proposal, the good never outweighs the bad. The film wraps up a devilish premise with a glossy romantic veneer but never finds the sweet spot of relatability. Even despite its idea, there’s a chasteness that never lifts off the film. Despite the intentions of both the director and cast.
Some of the clues lie simply in what the film decides to remove. Jack Engelhard’s original novel, which the film is based on, had a potentially volatile angle which was handily left out of Amy Holden Jones’ screenplay. Harrelson’s lead character was Jewish in the original text. Playing against an Arab billionaire. Such ethnic coding would be difficult to screen in such a film. Even now. However, Hollywood’s cultural whitewashing does little to inject any vigour into the storytelling.
Harrelson and Moore’s couple are earnest in their affection for each other. But their money woes pale in comparison to some dirty trainers left on the kitchen table. When Redford’s billionaire swoops in offering his salesman pizzaz, we expect fireworks. Not so. Redford, who likes to portray himself as the good guy in many of his features, gives an amount of Gatsby charm. However, he undermines the situation by still selling it as somewhat sweet. As if there’s nothing wrong with selling a woman’s virtue. It’s simply good old American business. This is the problem, as Lyne never lets the film truly cross into how troublesome the whole situation is. As if the Americans couldn’t handle a Hollywood golden boy turncoat for Demi Moore in the 90s. Guys. We’ve seen Ghost. We’d risk it all.
Excuse my objective framing of Ms Moore here. But for all intents and purposes, so much of Indecent Proposal should be a slam dunk. Moore, at the height of her powers, does well with the material to seem more than just the object of desire, and is at least given most of the film’s agency. Harrelson, an actor who has been more than dependable for almost four decades, simply doesn’t have much to chew on here other than to deliver slight inklings of jealousy when the time comes. Robert Redford is Robert Redford. Unable to underpin the darkness of the role given to him. An unfortunate aspect as because of this, nothing the film does gets under the skin. Robert Roten suggests in his brief piece on the movie: “It can be argued that the nation has lost its collective sense of moral outrage over the notion of selling one’s virtue for money. The sale price for virtue these days seems to be considerably less than $1 million.”
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I’m compelled to agree with him now that we live in a world where a platform like Onlyfans is a lucrative and viable career for more people than some would like to imagine. However, the real issue with the film is that it’s simply quite dull. This is Lyne barely out of second gear. The most exciting aspect of the film between the brief Billy Connolly and Billy Bob Thornton scenes is Michael Bay (yes that one), being credited as a consultant on the Vegas sequences.
You can tell that Lyne was a TV ad man before moving to film. The film for its flaws is dreamy to look at. Often draped in the familiar Hamilton-esque natural lighting style. The sex scenes in the film between Harrelson and Moore have enough chemistry between the couple to be credible. While the absence of the intimate night between Moore and Redford shows, in combination with the love scenes we do witness, how on-screen sex affects a narrative. But Indecent Proposal lacks drama where it counts. In the conversations. Lyne has stated previously that he likes his films to bring about discussions. Something this writer is all for. Yet after watching this film once again, having previously had to debate the film in other venues, I’m at a loss. 30 years on, I’m not too sure there’s that much to talk about.
Indecent Proposal was released in the USA on 7th April 1993.