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Nobody's Perfect

Writings from The New Yorker

Nobody's Perfect by Anthony Lane
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Anthony Lane on Con Air

“Advance word on Con Air said that it was all about an airplane with an unusually dangerous and potentially lethal load. Big deal. You should try the lunches they serve out of Newark. Compared with the chicken napalm I ate on my last flight, the men in Con Air are about as dangerous as balloons.”

Anthony Lane on The Bridges of Madison County

“I got my copy at the airport, behind a guy who was buying Playboy’s Book of Lingerie, and I think he had the better deal. He certainly looked happy with his purchase, whereas I had to ask for a paper bag.”

Anthony Lane on Martha Stewart—

“Super-skilled, free of fear, the last word in human efficiency, Martha Stewart is the woman who convinced a million Americans that they have the time, the means, the right, and—damn it—the duty to pipe a little squirt of soft cheese into the middle of a snow pea, and to continue piping until there are ‘fifty to sixty’ stuffed peas raring to go.”

For ten years, Anthony Lane has delighted New Yorker readers with his film reviews, book reviews, and profiles that range from Buster Keaton to Vladimir Nabokov to Ernest Shackleton. Nobody’s Perfect is an unforgettable collection of Lane’s trademark wit, satire, and insight that will satisfy both the long addicted and the not so familiar.

From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; August 2009
784 pages; ISBN 9780307488879
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Nobody's Perfect
Author: Anthony Lane

Indecent Proposal stars Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore as David and Diana Murphy, a young married couple living in California. He is an architect, she sells real estate, but times are hard; the film starts in a welter of voice-overs as they look back on better days. This is sad for them but great news for the audience, which gets to see Woody Harrelson trying to play a high school kid by wearing a shaggy wig: it's one of those preposterous, sublimely wrong moments that make you glad to be a moviegoer. As I watched these early scenes, I began to tremble with anticipation: this could be the great bad film of our time, a host to all its plagues. The omens were certainly good: the director is Adrian Lyne, the man who brought us Flashdance and 91/2 Weeks. On the other hand, his last movie was Jacob's Ladder-confused, maybe, but also genuinely sombre and scary, and played without show by a haunted Tim Robbins. Was that just an aberration, or was Lyne really turning thoughtful? Would Indecent Proposal punch us awake with a study in sexual envy worthy of Polanski? No need to worry. From the moment when David and Diana sink to the kitchen floor and start to deconstruct their underwear, and the pulse of a love song throbs into life on the soundtrack, you know that Adrian Lyne is back in form. And there's more to come: a yacht that cruises into the sunset, straight from a Bacardi rum ad, and a Las Vegas casino where the dice are shot in fun-size close-up, tumbling in slow motion over the baize.

You may have gathered that Indecent Proposal is a teeny bit obsessed with money. Amy Holden Jones wrote the script, which is vaguely propelled by a belief that money can't buy you love; but the rest of the movie doesn't want to know. It adores the stuff, and can only come up with feeble suggestions for doing without it. "We never had much money," Diana muses, looking back on their early years, "so David would show me architecture that moved him." Now, there's a fun day out: have Woody Harrelson take you around and point out buildings that move him. All in all, it's a relief when the two of them go to Vegas on a whim and win twenty-five thousand dollars in a single night. They then make love on top of all the crackling bills, with the camera right there, shifting its position in excitement and rising to a sudden fade. (I think the movie comes before they do.) John Updike pulled a similar stunt in Rabbit Is Rich, where Harry Angstrom screwed his wife amid a hoard of gold Krugerrands, but there you heard the clink of self-delusion as Rabbit lost a coin and scrabbled around for it in panic.

No such ironies are permitted here. Instead, the film bundles together all its desires and smelts them into one gleaming character: a billionaire named John Gage, played by Robert Redford. Gage thinks that money can buy you love-or, at any rate, the kind of sex that might, you know, sprout into love. So when he sees Diana in a Vegas boutique the wheels of lust start to grind, and before you can say junk bond he's asking her to kiss his dice and throw a seven. She wins, of course, whereupon he installs her and David-who have just lost all their cash-in an expensive suite. They look awed and pleased, although it's probably the nastiest hotel room ever seen on film: a steel-blue mess, rounded off with a delightful touch, at least in the print I saw-a microphone nodding from its boom at the top of the frame. Gage then makes his big offer: a million bucks for a night with Diana-no aftermath, no strings. "It's just my body," Diana explains. "It's not my mind." I was glad to have that cleared up, though it does raise an interesting question: How much would you pay for an evening with Demi Moore's mind?

I would happily give away the rest of the plot, except that you can guess it anyway. Indecent Proposal induces a strange power in the viewer, a glow of prophecy: you can see every kink in the plot minutes, even hours, before it happens. Looking back at my notes, I found a scribbled menu of predictions-"He'll buy the dress," "They're going to lose," and the eerily specific "He'll find the copter taking off as he arrives"-each of them followed by a gratified "Yup." There's nothing wrong with movies that run true to form; you could easily guess how Now, Voyager would pan out, yet still warm to the pattern of its melodrama. In those days, the studios treated weepies like thrillers-in the pursuit of love, Bette Davis had to skirt all the obstacles that fell into her path. Demi Moore wins her man back, too, and, unlike Davis, she gets him all to herself, forever; but the manner of the victory is so sluggish, with long pauses sagging between the lines, that it hardly seems worth the bother.

The whole thing needs a leading man with snap and vim, instead of which it gets Woody Harrelson. Admittedly, it's an awful part, which calls for little more than unfocussed emoting, but then Woody trying to emote looks like anyone else trying to go to sleep. At one point, he has to give a lecture on the inspiring joys of architecture, rising to the contention that "even a brick wants to be something." He should know. Harrelson has long been crucial to Cheers, which both mocks and somehow dignifies the dumb hick in him; this movie does the exact opposite, solemnly turning him into a total idiot, and could subtly dent your pleasure in the TV show from now on.

And what, you may ask, is Redford doing in all this? Doing a Robert Redford, that's what: a lot of shy smiling, a lot of looks that say, Hey, don't worry, things will work out fine. Whenever Demi Moore comes into view, he doesn't so much see her as glance in her direction, look away, then double-take back to her-and we're meant to like him for it, the old flirt. The fact that John Gage is a manipulating shyster appears not to have crossed Redford's mind-a shame, because if Redford ever decided to turn really sour we could be in for a fright. We've sensed that once, in All the President's Men, where the moral grime of the story, as well as Dustin Hoffman's sneakiness, rubbed off on him. None of that here: Lyne treats him like a male model, fluffing his hair and making him stand around in long shot so that we get an eyeful of his (mostly disgusting) suits. And the closer the camera comes the softer the lighting gets, as if loath to admit how crinkled and potato-chippy-how interesting, in other words-the golden boy's face has become.

The worst scene in Indecent Proposal-and there are plenty of contenders-shows John Gage going to school. Diana has taken "a second job, teaching citizenship," and just as she is telling a classroom of immigrant students about the United States, one of them looks outside and sees Gage's Rolls-Royce. Their interest is stirred, rising to outright adulation as the man himself strolls in and starts to woo their teacher. He's a messiah, smelling of fresh money, and the movie can only sit back and agree: no messing around-if you've come looking for America, this is the man you need to be. In its flailing attempt to elevate the poor, a scene like this only slaps them down; you watch it openmouthed at the loftiness of the insult. Indecent Proposal needs to be seen, if only to furnish proof that a whole movie, and not just individual performers, can be vain, and that real vanity doesn't just look in the mirror: it can turn around and damage others. There are many good films about the rich, but this one is dangerously cheap.

Of course, it's only entertainment, except that you can't conceive of anyone's watching Indecent Proposal and feeling entertained. You stare at Gage and think, How can anyone have so much money and so little fun? How can a roomful of immigrants want to be like that? As for Demi Moore, she goes from looking wistful, glazed, and poor to looking wistful, glazed, and rich-out of the fridge and into the deep freeze. The only character turned on by Gage's offer is the Murphys' lawyer, Jeremy (Oliver Platt), who has one short, cynical scene that blows the movie apart. "How could you negotiate without me?" he yells at David, sniffing a big commission. You suddenly realize that Indecent Proposal could (and should) have been a comedy; it starts off with much the same plot as Honeymoon in Vegas and smothers it in mists and moodiness.

This gets unbearable once Lyne decides to pay homage. On board Gage's yacht, Diana comes up on deck and finds him standing there in a white suit, staring out over the water. We're meant to think of another Redford role-Gatsby, on the end of his dock. It's a horrible grab at cut-price longing and pathos, but worse is to come: Gage's mournful recollection of his ideal love, a girl glimpsed once on a train and never seen again. "That was thirty years ago. . . . And I don't think there's a day goes by when I don't think about her." Remind you of anything? Try the aging Bernstein in Citizen Kane, remembering a girl in a white dress getting off a ferry in 1896: "I only saw her for one second and she didn't see me at all-but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." Orson Welles called it the best thing in the movie, and said once, "If I were in Hell and they gave me a day off and said, 'What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?,' I'd see that scene." How times change; when Redford speaks the lines, the audience giggles. Everything that Indecent Proposal touches, it sullies. It's trash without zest, keeping a poker face when there's nothing to be serious about; as for the sex, you can see most of it in the trailer. The kitsch extravaganza that I'd been hoping for just lay down and died.

April 26, 1993

From the Hardcover edition.
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