FEMALE TROUBLE

"Sexual harassment isn't about sex, it's about power." So says a lawyer who specializes in harassment cases, in the film version of Michael Crichton's best seller Disclosure. Later in the movie, the hero, an executive who is both the accused and the accuser in a harassment case, quotes this line to his wife, then whines, "When did I have the power?"
That's Crichton's plaintive refrain in Disclosure, and it's also David Mamet's in Oleanna, another current film about a well-to-do, upper-middle-class white guy under siege in the workplace by a devious, calculating woman. They're just honest, hardworking sorts, the authors seem to be saying of their heroes; why do you scheming bitches want so badly to destroy them?

Disclosure is intended as dishy Hollywood entertainment, and Oleanna as hard-hitting political theatre, but both involve something that male writers seem to be fretting about lately--the idea of sex being used against us as a weapon. The more discreet response might be to feel welcomed to the club.

Poor Michael Douglas. He's the Fay Wray of the modern era, and having been lucratively menaced by such Queen Kongs as Glenn Close, Kathleen Turner and Sharon Stone, has gotten himself a new distaff monster who finds him so irresistible, she'll destroy him before she'll take no for an answer. This time the she-beast is Demi Moore, who plays Douglas' boss in Disclosure.

Crichton's plot, which is reportedly based on a real-life case, concerns a sexual harassment charge made by a male executive of a computer company against his attractive, sexually aggressive female boss. True story or not, the setup comes across as fairly contrived--he (Douglas) is up for a vice presidency when she (Moore), an old girlfriend with whom he has a particularly hot sexual history, gets the job instead. He's upset, but decides to make the best of it, and when she invites him to her office for an after-hours drink, he accepts. She instantly, almost assaultively, begins making advances at him, and after a minute or two of acquiescence, he breaks away from her--he's married--and leaves the office. She is outraged, and the next day tells her bosses that he attacked her. He's offered a transfer to a dead-end position, but instead gets a lawyer and sues, confident that the company, which is on the verge of a merger, will settle. As he and his allies probe the matter, they begin to see that the allegation against him is part of a complex web of industrial intrigue. The happy news about the film of Disclosure is that the director, Barry Levinson, and the adapter, Paul Attanasio, have thrown most of Crichton's dreary debate about sexual harassment in the workplace over the side. Whenever the questions that supposedly constitute the central theme rear their heads, the movie is in danger of collapsing, but when the focus is on the high-tech intrigue, Disclosure is a crackerjack industrial-espionage thriller, despite some double-take-prompting inconsistencies of characterization. The choice of Levinson as the director of Disclosure marks the second time that a good Hollywood liberal has been brought in to tidy up one of Crichton's reactionary books (tidy it up for the critics, that is; the public doesn't mind the occasional reactionary movie). Precisely because of his delight in the Asian imagery, Philip Kaufman made an exotic thriller out of the first half of Crichton's protectionist rant Rising Sun. Kaufman pushed the cautious PC revisionism too hard in the second half, and the film fell apart, but it was still better than the vague, unpersuasive didacticism of the novel.

In the same way--but with much more success--Levinson and Attanasio and the actors revel in what Crichton, in Disclosure, wants to present as terrifying--the treacherous, sexually volatile atmosphere of a high-rolling firm. They bring it to bitchy, funny, gleefully suspenseful life.

Disclosure isn't remotely a great movie. Douglas' hero is a shoddily pasted-together excuse for a character--he acts like an imbecile at the beginning of the film, then later displays intuitions that would impress Sherlock Holmes--and Moore's Spider Woman isn't a character at all; she's just a projection. Most of the secondary characters are similar pageant figures--the tyrannical boss, the obsequious corporate lawyer, the boy-genius computer whiz, the outraged wife. But Disclosure is good trash. Attanasio, who wrote Quiz Show, gives Crichton's earnest, functional dialogue a massive makeover, and it comes out as wisecracking repartee, not quite on the Ben Hecht level, maybe, but not unfit to be mentioned in the same sentence as Hecht, either. Levinson orchestrates the performances of the large cast beautifully, helping actors fast-talk their way past the thinness of the roles.

Levinson's direction of the actors is certainly his main contribution to Disclosure. The standout is probably Caroline Goodall, as the least pillish wife that any movie hero has had in a while (she's clearly the brains in the marriage). Donald Sutherland hams it up entertainingly as the bileful boss, comedian Dennis Miller acquits himself in a small role, and Allan Rich's line readings, as Moore's dour attorney, are the quintessence of the phrase "dry as dust."

Yet this film also represents Levinson's best work as a hired-gun director (as opposed to such more personal works as Diner and Avalon). Even Bugsy, good as the best of it was, seems visually stiff compared to Disclosure. Levinson's camera movement here never seems showy, but it has an almost insouciant freedom and inventiveness, and Ennio Morricone's ominous music gives the film both tension and an edge of irony.

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