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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.)

And there's one note in the script so discordant and sleazy that it probably shouldn't have made the final cut. Meredith's monologue during the sexual harassment inquest, in which she recalls being sadistically forced into sex by Tom, is full of the sort of excruciatingly genuine and painful details you rarely hear outside of transcripts from rape trials. The film treats her obviously faked tears as ultimate evidence of her villainy, which leaves a mighty nasty narrative aftertaste. The scene says, Women get men all hot and bothered, see, and they trick you into thinking it's okay to have sex with them, then they change their minds the next day and cry sexual assault. It's a pat on the back to date rapists everywhere.

Disclosure, to its credit, somehow finds the right tone to contain its digressions, contradictions, and missteps. It has a slick, seductive, appealing look that falls between domestic melodrama and modern noir, and it moves with such vigor and precision that you don't realize how preposterous and sometimes offensive it is until you've thought it over later.

Levinson and Attanasio have a strong enough feel for the vagaries of real-world behavior that the film never seems flat or perfunctory. There are real people in this movie, fighting over real issues with real consequences, and even if the way they're presented sometimes feels one-sided and phony, you can't help respecting Disclosure for at least trying to be smart and adult. And even when it degenerates into a morass of Tron-era techno-wonk visuals, and a thriller plot so ludicrously overwrought that it makes the narrative of The Sting seem like haiku, it never stops holding your interest.

But it does beg the question of how much longer Michael Douglas can keep playing these parts without lapsing into inadvertent self-parody. By now, the image of this smallish, surly, shaggy-haired fellow stalking around in a dress shirt and tie and expressing fear of women and minorities is as familiar to moviegoers as John Wayne in a cowboy hat or Max Von Sydow dressed as a man of God. Douglas is a solid leading man who displays the same kind of irascible everyman charm--and some of the actorly versatility--that I've always loved in Spencer Tracy. (When he acts put-upon and bitchy, he's like Tracy crossed with Richard Dreyfuss.) As much as I dislike his politics, I enjoy him as a performer. And I can't help admiring his determination, film after film, to both entertain viewers and get them arguing en route to their cars.

You know exactly what you're getting when you buy a ticket to his films: a tale of a middle-class straight white guy trying to get along in a world that's forever plotting his downfall. In the last decade, his celluloid showdowns with minorities (Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile, Black Rain) and women (Fatal Attraction, War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Disclosure) have coalesced into a filmic body of work that's surprisingly unified and consistent. And his last movie, the spirit-of-Anglo-America-on-the-rampage epic Falling Down, plays like a manifesto for the emerging conservative majority: it's as muddled, angry, and self-canceling as reactionary politics itself--Taxi Driver for the Rush Limbaugh set. How long, I wonder, until his films are sold via TV spots in a shrink-wrapped boxed set, along with a case of Bud Light, a year's subscription to Playboy, and a souvenir copy of The Way Things Ought to Be?

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