Gender Politics Flip-Flop in `Disclosure'

In the film, a corporate woman retaliates after her sexual advances are rejected

When you're a bestselling author like Michael Crichton or a popular Hollywood director like Barry Levinson, plugging into the latest cultural brouhahas is part of your job description.

Never have these savvy entertainers pushed more hot buttons in a single project than they do in ``Disclosure,'' the new suspense film starring Michael Douglas as a likable computer executive and Demi Moore as his treacherous new boss. The picture serves up megadoses of sexual harassment and computer-biz backstabbing, spiced with feminist issues and antifeminist backlash - not to mention a hyperbolic sex scene, enough anatomically graphic dialogue to fill a dozen tabloid-TV shows, and a burst of virtual-reality special effects in the homestretch.

What makes the movie compulsively watchable is the sheer momentum of its story, its acting, and its images. What makes it borderline sleazy is its over-the-top sexuality, which stretches the R rating to its limits. What makes it provocative is its backward-looking view of female progress in the business world. Turning the usual gender-politics scenarios on their heads, the villain is a woman obsessed with sex and power, while the victim is a man whose career goes kerflooey when he rejects her advances.

Could it happen? Of course it could, and unquestionably it often has. But have men undergone sexual harassment nearly as often as women? Not according to any statistic I've seen. And does justice now call for a big-budget movie to make audiences weep over the sufferings of oppressed white corporation men? Many will say no, and they'll be the ones hissing as ``Disclosure'' hits its controversial high points.

The hero is Tom Sanders, a family man, computer engineer, and all-around nice guy whose comfy life is about to get even comfier, thanks to a much-deserved promotion he's certain to receive. Imagine his dismay when the boss passes him over, bestowing the big VP-ship on Meredith Johnson, a woman from another branch of the corporation. Is she really the best-qualified person, or is the company's honcho overeager to ``break the glass ceiling'' by elevating a woman at any cost?

And what's the chemistry between Tom and Meredith, who had a tempestuous affair years ago? It's been ages since Tom thought about this long-past relationship, but Meredith seems eager to revive it during an after-hours appointment in her newly acquired office.

Confronted with her aggressive sexuality, Tom caves in for a while but eventually finds the strength to just say no, regaining his dignity and storming furiously out the door. The next day Meredith retaliates with a wildly false charge of sexual harassment, damaging his career and vowing to ruin his life if he won't fall in line with her wishes.

``Disclosure'' uses this story to pitch a couple of different messages. The first, stated directly and reasonably, is that sexual harassment has more to do with power than with sex.

The second, stated indirectly and insidiously, is that feminist gains have spawned a new breed of predatory woman, as dangerous as any power-abusing man and shielded from discovery by her ability to exploit bleeding-heart notions of female vulnerability. Mere-dith is a ``spider woman'' as surely as the evil-doing females of countless films noir in bygone decades.

What's new is the cloak of sociocultural victimhood in which she wraps her nasty schemes - and the movie's eagerness to exploit this particular brand of villainy, poignantly aimed at a hero who never abused a right or flaunted a privilege in his middle-class-white-male life.

Not surprisingly, ``Disclosure'' covers its postfeminist tracks. A couple of strong and honorable women play important roles, including Tom's understanding wife and the attorney who guides him through legal quicksand. And much of the tale steers in other directions altogether, through related subplots about a corporate merger and technical glitches at the computer factory. Still, there's no mistaking the movie's glee in constructing and then humiliating a corporate woman who rivals Cruella de Ville (``101 Dalmatians'') for wickedness. Foes of gender harmony will find much comfort here.

On the level of pure craft, ``Disclosure'' is first-rate in every department. Levinson's directing is cogent and colorful, and cinematography by camera wizard Tony Pierce-Roberts is dazzling.

Paul Attanasio's screenplay is full of surprises, and while it resolves one of its major plot lines with a trite detective-story flourish, it gets a second wind and delivers a new batch of unexpected twists before the finale. The excellent supporting cast includes Donald Sutherland as the company boss, Caroline Goodall as Tom's wife, and Roma Maffia as his tough-talking lawyer.

* ``Disclosure'' is rated R. It includes an explicit sex scene, frank discussion of sexual acts, and much vulgar language.

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