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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Disclosure': The Plot Thickens . . . : Douglas, Moore Star in Adaptation of Crichton's Novel on Harassment Reversal

December 09, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Like the hotel chain that promises "no surprises," the film version of the best-selling "Disclosure" has little use for the unexpected, with one exception. Albeit unintentionally, it increases appreciation for the storytelling skills of novelist Michael Crichton.

One aspect of Crichton's talent, his ability to spin out glib tales that are pantingly close to today's headlines, has been much commented upon. "Disclosure," with its au courant topic of sexual harassment in the workplace, is high-concept pulp fiction, the latest in a successful string that has included "Jurassic Park" and "Rising Sun."

But not until you see "Disclosure," starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore and directed by Barry Levinson from a script by Paul Attanasio, will you appreciate a humbler aspect of Crichton's craft. Although literary critics understandably fulminate about his characterization and his writing style, Crichton knows how to write a coherent plot, something his movie versions tend to have trouble with.

"Disclosure" is hardly a great mess. It is rather standard Hollywood fare, adequately entertaining if lacking in the over-the-top enthusiasm someone like Paul Verhoeven ("Basic Instinct") would have brought. But its preoccupation with snazzy computer-generated special effects has left key plot points so unclear at least one baffled viewer had to retreat to the book to find out why some things happened and others did not.

Of course "Disclosure's" money scene, the lurid sexual encounter between Tom Sanders (Douglas) and his glamorous boss (and former girlfriend) Meredith Johnson (Moore), has not been allowed to languish in uncertainty. Crisply shot by "Howards End's" Tony Pierce-Roberts, it is presented as a high-gloss clash of the titans, with the unscrupulous Johnson trying to force her dastardly will on a plainly confused Sanders.

Sanders' confusion is understandable. When this particular day began, he and his svelte wife, Susan (Caroline Goodall), were looking forward to some positive results from the merger of DigiCom, the high-tech Seattle firm Sanders works for, with a bigger outfit. He might even be promoted to the plum job of vice president of Advanced Operations and Planning.

But when Sanders gets to the office, he eventually finds out (in a typically murky bit of exposition) that DigiCom's mercurial boss, Bob Garvin (Donald Sutherland), has given the promotion he thought he earned to Johnson, an ambitious old flame who he feels "doesn't know the difference between software and a cashmere sweater."

As played by Moore, Johnson is a classic villainess with a heart as brittle as a silicon chip. Rapacious and conniving, she insists on getting her own way or knowing the reason why. Although Moore does not bring the brio to the part that Linda Fiorentino imparts to "The Last Seduction," she is perfectly adequate to the film's single-dimension sensibility.

The same is true for Douglas, whose character spends much of the movie rushing around with jaws clenched and a harried look on his face after Johnson has the cheek to accuse \o7 him\f7 of harassing \o7 her\f7 . As DigiCom lines up behind Garvin's favorite and problems develop with a new gizmo he is supposed to be supervising, Sanders decides to duke it out and ends up with harassment expert Catharine Alvarez (Roma Maffia, who makes the same strong impression she did in "The Paper") as his lawyer.

All this is certainly clear enough, but other things that should be are not. What, for instance, is the nature of the hold Johnson has over Garvin, and is there anything besides pure lust motivating what happens behind her locked office doors? The book tidily clears up these problems, but the film leaves them uncomfortably hanging around.

More effective, and a surprising highlight of the film, are "Disclosure's" visuals. Production designer Neil Spisak, art directors Richard Yanez-Toyon and Charles William Breen and set decorator Garrett Lewis have created an exciting office environment from scratch for the folks at DigiCom. And the ever-reliable gremlins at Industrial Light & Magic have come up with a vivid representation of the possible future of virtual reality technology.

Although Levinson has done a plausible job of directing, "Disclosure" suffers from what feels like a lack of creative passion. After "Toys" and "Jimmy Hollywood," back-to-back personal projects that misfired, it's hard not to feel that he took this film on largely to strengthen his commercial credentials, and it shows.

Similarly, screenwriter Attanasio, who dealt thoughtfully with ethical dilemmas in "Quiz Show," works in a more limited moral palette in "Disclosure," where questions of who is right and who is wrong are plainly obvious. The idea that sexual harassment is about power, not sex, and that a woman in power can potentially misbehave just like a man may be news to certain segments of the population, but they are not news enough to light a much-needed fire under this production.

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