Have you ever been cheated on? There is nothing quite like the emotional pain of learning that someone you love has been fucking someone else. It’s a helpless ache, a roiling throb that sits in the pit of your stomach that nothing but the passage of time can heal. It leaves you numb, curled up on your bed with a pillow between your legs to offer false comfort. And unlike a lot of other emotional traumas, you can’t repress it. You have to own it, process it, work through it, and let the poison run completely through your system before you can move on.
No director is better at duplicating that feeling onscreen that Adrian Lyne, the master of the adultery film, most recently with the Unfaithful and, before that, Indecent Proposal. I haven’t seen Indecent Proposal since I’d last been cheated on, but its release on Blu Ray gave me an excuse to revisit it. I feared that it’d been ravaged by time, that it’d feel outdated, that my current perceptions of both Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore would taint it, but — despite the occasionally poorly written line and an incredibly lame gimmick even for 1993 — it’s still an emotionally raw, though flawed, film.
For even those that haven’t seen Indecent Proposal, the film’s gimmick — a hook good enough to draw moviegoers in to see an adultery film — is probably already familiar. David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) are a happily married couple. They met in college and have had, since, a fairly routine happy marriage. He’s an architect; she’s a real-estate agent. They love each other, and things are going swimmingly. That is, until the recession hits. David loses his job; Diana’s career suffers, and the two find themselves broke, just short of losing the dream house that David is building. Times are tough; they need $50,000 to avoid foreclosure. David borrows $5,000 from his Dad, and the two decide — unwisely — to attempt to multiply the money at a casino in Vegas. No dice.
But, while they’re there, Diana inadvertently catches the eye of John Cage (Robert Redford), a wealthy entrepreneur who thinks nothing of losing $1 million at the craps table. He’s instantly smitten, and the type of egotistical bastard that believes that everything has a price tag, even the thigh-betwixt of a married woman. He recruits her as his lucky charm at the tables, wins back $1 million he lost, and invites the couple up to his penthouse for an after-party. There, he offers a deal: He’ll give David and Diana $1 million to spend the night with Diana.
It’s an absurd premise, of course. David tells Cage to go the hell, and in most loving marriages, there wouldn’t even be a moral dilemma. That would be that. But this is a mainstream Hollywood film here, and like we allowed ourselves do to in largely ignoring the abortion question in both Knocked Up and Juno, we also allow ourselves to entertain a question we’d never consider in real life: Is a lifetime of financial security worth one night of your wife’s infidelity.
It’s in exploring that question that Indecent Proposal suffers the most — the premise would’ve made a great mumblecore film, I suspect, as the characters would’ve spent most of the time debating the merits of both sides. Here, it’s too glossed over — Diana decides to do it for David and David allows her to do it because … well, it’s hard to say. Perhaps because it sounded like a good idea to him on paper and he failed to really consider the consequences. In either respect, the decision to do it is arrived at quickly. She flies off in a helicopter with Cage, and David is left to stew in his own regret. Nothing about the scenario rings particularly true.
It’s the aftermath, however, where Lyne demonstrates his deftness with adultery-related material. No happily-married husband would allow his wife to fuck another man for cash, but, if he did, the second act is a fairly realistic depiction of what would happen. They decide not to talk about it, but It doesn’t work. Like any decent male with an ounce of pride, David eventually demands to know the details. And when you look like Woody Harrelson, and your wife just slept with a guy who looks like Robert Redford, you don’t want the specifics and you really don’t want to know if he was better. Naturally, the truth wreaks havoc on their marriage, and it begins to unravel.
The third act reverts to Hollywood formulism, but it works. It works because Robert Redford is a charmingly arrogant prick who you want to slap the shit out of and then sleep with; because Woody Harrelson has always been good when given a role where he has to battle his own pride (see also White Men Can’t Jump, where Harrelson gave the movie the better performance than it deserved), and because Adrian Lyne knows how to hit all the right chords. It doesn’t hurt, either, that he’s backed up by John Barry’s score (Dances with Wolves), which gently digs into that ache, although there are a few times that Amy Jones’ (Mystic Pizza) script threatens to derail Lyne’s deft direction.
Indeed, it’s hard to say that Indecent Proposal works as a film about a married woman sleeping with a rich asshole for a lot of money. But it does work quite well as an adultery film. Granted, it’s a movie burdened by hokiness, but there’s so much human complexity beneath it that Indecent Proposal’s strengths manage, ever-so-slightly to overcome its flaws. And, if anything, it provides a convenient means for accelerating the process of getting over your own betrayals of fidelity.
Dustin Rowles is a famous Internet personality, so famous that he’d never have to barter his wife for cash. You can email him or leave a comment below