And the Popcorn Stinks, Too

It happens every spring with numbing predictability. The crush of Christmas blockbusters and Oscar contenders peters out sometime in mid-January, and with one or two exceptions the pickings A at least in terms of first-run domestic theatrical releases A remain slim until the advance guard of the big summer films bows in late May. Here in South Florida the bleak cinematic landscape has been colored somewhat by the arrival of a series of wonderful foreign films, but their appearance at this otherwise barren juncture is at least partially attributable to their having opened months ago in other major U.S. cities. Films such as la discräte, Tous les matins du monde, Il ladro di bambini, Close to Eden, and Like Water for Chocolate are welcome relief from the Amos & Andrews and Married to Its, but they're also films that have long since had their run elsewhere.

So we are left with our Cop and a Halfs and our Jack the Bears. Groundhog Day was a pleasant surprise A one of Bill Murray's most mature and best realized comic roles to date. But another Murray vehicle, Mad Dog and Glory, which costarred Robert DeNiro, was an offsetting disappointment. While both Bad Lieutenant and Falling Down were at least thought-provoking, do they really compensate for Hear No Evil, The Temp, Rich In Love, Swing Kids, Hexed, Knight Moves, Fifty Fifty, The Opposite Sex, Sniper, and Born Yesterday? And who, other than Eskimo impersonator Lou Diamond Phillips, will stand up for Shadow of the Wolf?

We are always hearing about the tens of thousands of screenplays floating around Hollywood like so many sperm cells in search of an egg, each hoping to be the one that beats the staggering odds. The rationale behind one contender making it instead of another is rarely vindicated by the quality of the finished product. For every Crying Game or The Player there's The Bodyguard or Forever Young. The Lord and the studio move in mysterious ways.

Occasionally domestic fare gets so bad that an otherwise anemic film with little if anything to recommend it becomes a surprise hit. Pent-up demand builds to the point that a piece of attractively mounted high-concept slag, just clever enough to build a glossy 30-second trailer and a titillating ad campaign around, becomes a hit. Last year's winner was Basic Instinct, which had a few good moments and delivered the goods on the steamy-sex-scene front. Granted, there are those of us with delicate aesthetic sensibilities who were permanently traumatized by the gratuitous shots of Michael Douglas's saggy butt, but at least he had the cojones to put it on the line (of course, he didn't put the cojones on the line, but that's OK by this reviewer).

Body of Evidence, the hot wax and Madonna vehicle, aspired to be such stuff, but wasn't. But lo and behold, Indecent Proposal, released at a time when the only competition at the cineplex comes from Teenage Mutant Merchandising Concept III, has gotten off where Madonna couldn't. Easily the stupidest and least sexy of the three films, Indecent Proposal proves once and for all that intelligence and mainstream American cinema are incompatible.

This is a movie so dumb that one scribe suggested renaming it Raw Sewage Runs Through It. See the trailer and you've seen the movie. Yet Mr. and Mrs. Moviegoer (or, one suspects, their teenage son or daughter) have been flocking to it. After just two weeks of release, it's the runaway hit of the season and, more damaging for fans of quality motion pictures in the long run, has probably solidified Woody Harrelson's bankability while reinforcing Demi Moore's insufferability.

One shudders to think of what the movie has done for Las Vegas. The place is probably crawling with hard-luck couples searching for a millionaire to sleep with. Can't you just picture it: fleets of buses rolling into town disgorging hordes of twosomes who ignore the siren call of the one-armed bandits that would normally be their final resting place, and search for a Faustian pact of their very own.

Predictably, the laws of supply and demand will take over and the price will drop. As thousands of husbands doll up their wives and trick them out in pumps and fishnets to troll the casino pits, the going rate will slip from a million to a hundred thou, then fifty, then twenty. The professional pimps, the ones who were there before the movie was released, will all relocate to L.A. and await the inevitable day when the bottom falls out and newlywed brides are busted offering to trade a roll in the sack for breakfast and bus fare back to Cincinnati.

According to early box-office returns, between seven and ten million Americans A roughly three percent of the nation's populace A have ponied up for a gander at Demi and Woodi doing the nasti. That exceeds by a dozen or so the number of people who read my review of the film. Just goes to show you what the ticket-buying public thinks of film critics, as if we didn't know that already.

The film's producers, the same sensitive, altruistic arbiters of taste and morality who brought us Fatal Attraction, are presumably laughing all the way to the nearest Perpetual Savings branch. In much the same fashion that Fatal Attraction, the story of a philandering husband who has an affair with a mistress from hell, sparked a lively national discussion of marital infidelity and its consequences, Indecent Proposal's central dilemma -- Would you sleep with a stranger for a million bucks? -- has become the national topic du jour. Newspapers have dispatched reporters to interview the man in the street; talk-radio phone lines have been humming; Oprah's done a show on the subject.

Fatal Attraction did more to suppress the time-honored American tradition of marital infidelity than every sermon ever preached from every pulpit in every church in South Carolina. Motel owners were reportedly threatening to file a class action lawsuit against the movie's producers. Perhaps Indecent Proposal, with its tacit condoning of illicit romance if the price is right, was part of an out-of-court settlement.

There's a timeworn anecdote that bears repeating here. A man and a woman meet at a party and make small talk. The man asks the woman if she would consider sleeping with him for a million dollars. The woman mulls it over and responds that yes, for a million dollars, she probably would. In that case, the man continues, would you sleep with me for a dollar?

"Of course not!" she replies indignantly. "What kind of woman do you think I am?"

"We've established that," he counters. "Now we're just haggling over the price."

In the case of Indecent Proposal, that price is seven bucks.
Professional pimps await the day when newlywed brides offer to trade a roll in the sack for breakfast and bus fare back to Cincinnati.

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