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As a treatise on sexual harassment, Disclosure falls flat. But as entertainment, it's hard to resist

Adapted from Michael Crichton's bestseller about sexual harassment and office intrigue in a high-tech Seattle computer company, Disclosure is a lavishly photographed, smartly acted, superbly directed piece of hooey.

Director Barry Levinson, who gave us such upper-middlebrow entertainments as Bugsy and Rainman, and screenwriter Paul Attanasio, whose work for Quiz Show was the finest script written by an American since Raging Bull, labor mightily to bring sense and sensibility to the story. They come very close to making it seem sophisticated and respectable and fair-minded. But the veneer of wit is about 10 pixels deep.

Michael Douglas plays the hero, Tom Sanders, a married father and a rising executive at DigiCom, a company set to merge with a larger high-tech firm that lusts after its supersophisticated CD-ROM technology. Tom has given his all to DigiCom and has every reason to expect a promotion--one timed to coincide with the merger. But the closer he gets to judgment day, the less sure of his fate he becomes: his colleagues keep giving him wan, furtive looks and dodging his questions about what the future will bring. It soon becomes obvious to Tom that he was never seriously considered for promotion, and that everybody in the office knew this except him.

Into this atmosphere of mistrust comes the person who actually gets the promotion: Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore), a dark-haired woman with a cool demeanor, a sharp tongue, and a determination to keep rising to the very top of the corporate heap. She and Tom were lovers once. When she invites him to her office after-hours to celebrate her achieve-ment and talk shop, he has mixed feelings.

Once Tom is alone with Meredith, she all but rapes him--treating him to one of the most enthusiastic rounds of oral sex ever seen in commercial cinema, then demanding he have intercourse with her. He flees. She's enraged. "Come back here and finish what you started!" she yells after him.

After some soul-searching, Tom decides to hire a top female lawyer who specializes in precisely this sort of case, and pursue sexual harassment charges against Meredith. Meredith, no dummy, has already done the same. The middle section of Disclosure, which pits these two strong-willed people against each other in a corporate kangaroo court, is the smartest and most entertaining stretch of sexual-political hysteria since the first half of Fatal Attraction.

There's never any doubt in our minds what really happened (we did, after all, see it in graphic detail). But refreshingly, the movie teases out every iota of juvenile macho swagger in Tom's character. In touches both obvious (the way Tom casually pats his secretary's behind) and subtle (Tom's reluctance to give sexually explicit testimony before his female attorney and his wife), Disclosure indicates that while Meredith's behavior could never be considered excusable, she's not solely to blame for it. We're invited to view her as the Machiavellian spawn of a sexually dysfunctional business world.

At least, that's what Disclosure does with Meredith some of the time. But because her character isn't drawn with the same warmth and complexity as the hero, she never becomes more than a caricature of a castrating bitch. She's both cold and sexually voracious, using her body to gain advantage over men and her animalistic mind to hold on to what she gets. Because every other character in the picture is granted at least one moment of sympathy or understanding, Meredith feels like a cartoon projection of a company man's neuroses and desires--a wet dream who can get you fired.

For all the film's huffing and puffing about how powerful women are as likely to abuse their lofty position for sexual gain as powerful men, we never get the sense that this parable is of value to both sexes. The film's point of view is rigidly conservative, paranoid, and male, and no amount of sensitive directorial brushwork or self-deprecating humor about the hero's machismo can disguise this fact.

I don't doubt the story's central premise: that power corrupts no matter what the gender of the person who wields it. But I can't help suspecting that a powerful woman would abuse her authority sexually in a very different manner than a man. The demonic way Meredith jumps poor Tom--she's like a feminized cousin of those cigar-chomping gargoyle suits from old Blake Edwards movies--feels false. It points to a failure of both imagination and nerve, and it undermines any serious points about sex and power the film intends to make. (It's even suggested that Meredith physically overpowered Tom. "She probably spends an hour a day on the stairmaster," a supporting character helpfully points out.) There's a difference between real sexual role-reversal and the heedless swapping of sexual cliches, and I'm not convinced Michael Crichton has figured this out.

In fairness, though, a large part of the problem might be Demi Moore's performance. Although she clearly revels in the idea of playing a strong, intimidating femme fatale (and the film sets unreasonably high expectations by showing us a televised clip from Double Indemnity), Moore is too transparent to give the part the energy it requires. Unlike Linda Fiorentino, who sashays through The Last Seduction with such gusto that she brings a moldy black-widow stereotype to dizzying new life, Moore is so brittle and clumsy that she actually makes her character feel even less believable than she appeared in Crichton's book. (It also might have helped if Moore wasn't dressed and coifed to resemble a Vargas girl--and if Levinson didn't introduce her as a disembodied pair of high-heeled gams, and if he didn't linger over her cleavage and buttocks and bobbing skull in the Head Galore scene as if directing a lost episode of The Red Shoe Diaries.)

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