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Closer (2004) Print E-mail
Friday, 03 December 2004
“Closer” is not a romantic comedy—the concept of romance rarely raises its head and the film is too biting and caustic to be funny, though it’s often witty. The title is somewhat ironic, although not entirely: these four people do get closer, but never close enough. It’s based on Patrick Marber’s 1997 play; his screenplay is as tightly-focused as the play must have been—there are only four characters; no one else even has dialog (other than in passing). It covers four years in the lives of these people, but we see only the beginnings and ends of the love affairs at the center. It’s not as bitter as director Mike Nichol’s earlier “Carnal Knowledge” or as harsh as his debut movie, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”—at the end there’s a hint of a promising future for one character—but is as engrossing.

In London, young American woman Alice (Natalie Portman) has an unusual meeting with obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) when she’s struck by a taxi. She’s only slightly injured, but is knocked out; when she awakes, Dan’s the first person she sees. Dan isn’t really happy in his job, but it does earn him a living; he has written a novel, and the next time we meet the two, some months later, it’s about to be published.

He poses for Anna (Julia Roberts), a professional photographer and also an American; they talk in obliquely erotic tones and end up kissing, although she’s guilty about this. When Alice enters (and Dan leaves), she quickly realizes that something happened between Anna and her boyfriend.

In the most amusing scene, busy doctor Larry (Clive Owen) carries on a very erotic flirtation by computer with what he assumes to be a gorgeous woman, but we see is Dan. There is a faint current of homosexual feelings running through the film; Dan’s flirtation is a prank, but he’s also aroused by it. Thinking he’s going to meet the woman of his dreams, who’s identified herself as Anna, Larry goes to the London Aquarium—where, by chance, he meets the real Anna. They’re attracted, but she’s slightly irked by Dan’s prankishness.

Over the next year or so, Anna and Larry are married (offscreen), and she has a gallery showing attended by Dan and Alice, who are living together. After Larry returns from a trip to New York, Anna hesitantly informs him that she’s having an affair with Dan. Larry subjects her to cruel, intense questioning—whose semen tastes better? he demands (Dan’s is sweeter, she says)—which is less to gain information than to punish her for her infidelity.
Alice learns of the affair, too, and immediately leaves Dan, returning to her former job of sex-club stripper. Larry happens upon her there (she’s in a pink wig and not much else), and demands a private session with her, insisting that she tell him the truth. Through this and other blistering encounters, the film wraps up the tale of these four.

Truth is a weapon in “Closer,” not a means of developing relationships. Lies are the currency of the world, one of them says, and two of them—the men—seem to believe this completely. Larry is financially better off than Dan, but he’s colder and more common; he sees his battle with Dan (the two meet alone only once) as a contest he has to win. The heart, he says, is a fist wrapped in blood, and that’s how he lives. After a time, it’s unimportant whether or not he loves Anna; she’s become the prize in the tug of war between him and Dan, with Alice (as far as he is concerned) a side issue.

To Dan, truth is extremely important, but impossible to recognize. The one character in the film who’s completely honest with everyone else—even if she’s as vicious as the others—is Alice. Though she’s living a lie that she invented almost the moment she met Dan, otherwise she’s honest and direct, but she does deliberately employ truth under circumstances where it seems that she must be lying. She’s aware of the misconception, but uses it as a weapon. Anna is tortured by truth; she loves Dan more than she does Larry, but believes that Larry loves her more than Dan does. She cannot find the truth in her relationship with either man, and the last we see of her, she’s clearly wondering if her ultimate decision was the wisest thing to do.

Dan is left haunted, tortured by his own inability to trust; Anna is grieving over that possible error; Alice cuts herself off completely from the other three—and only Larry is, at least for the moment, happy—or at least he seems to be. His goals and sources of pleasure were simpler, cruder than those the others dealt with, so he’s happier with what seems to be a conclusion.

Because we see only the start and end of these relationships, we see the people only under intense, emotional circumstances—and yet we like all of them. Marber builds his characters extremely well—they seem alive on screen, not like actors performing. (Although we do see a bit of that in some of Roberts’ work.) The dialogue isn’t rich with witty quips; it’s how people really talk with the uhs and ers taken out. The conversations are often battles, but between people who care about one another; yes, they sometimes deliberately cause pain, but we always easily see their deep affection. At the end, we aren’t fed up with the characters; we don’t wish unhappiness on any of them—but we also see that they’re not likely ever to be happy with one another.

This is not an erotic film in any sense, although Portman is nearly nude in the strip club scene. The people rarely touch, and in that scene, much of the tension arises from the club rule that prevents Larry from having any physical contact with Alice. We hear about sexual encounters, we don’t see them. Instead, we see the internal mechanisms of the relationships themselves—how these people react to affection, to stress, to loss. It’s always realistic, it’s sometimes disturbing, and it’s all brilliantly written.

It’s also very well-played. Jude Law, the busiest actor of 2004, is so different here than in his other recent films than at first, you might not recognize him. He has wire-frame glasses (which he later discards for contacts), his hair is brown and scruffy, and he’s anything but hip and stylish. But he’s confident, outgoing and warm, as well as manipulative and—paradoxically—insecure. He changes relatively little over the course of the film, and makes little emotional (or professional) headway.

Clive Owen played Dan on stage, a performance I hope was preserved on video. Larry is the stronger one of the two men, both in physical terms—he looks like he could snap Dan like a twig—and in terms of emotional gamesplaying. Despite his teasing sexual impersonation online, Dan isn’t entirely aware that some people can play sexual games offline, and do it with more ruthlessness than he’s expecting. If he can be tagged with a simplistic term, Dan’s the loser of the piece. Twice he has what he wants, and neither time does he have the understanding to keep it.

We’ve seen Natalie Portman grow up on screen, from her first role as a 10-year-old potential killer in “The Professional,” on through “Heat,” “Everyone Says I Love You” and her ongoing star performance in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga. As “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs” were the roles that ushered Jodie Foster into adult roles, her part in “Closer” will do the same for Natalie Portman; she’s outstanding.

Julia Roberts is a notch or so down on the acting scale here—she’s been better in other movies, such as “Erin Brockovich.” She is certainly not bad in “Closer,” but she doesn’t reveal the emotional depths or display the complexity of the other three characters.

Mike Nichols is one of the most interesting directors around; sometimes he blows it—“What Planet Are You From?”—sometimes his choices are more peculiar than satisfying—“Wolf”—but all his films are intelligent and beautifully crafted. The style of “Closer” is crisp and clean; the sets are carefully designed (it takes a beat to realize that the ratty-looking loft we first see Anna in at the beginning is the elegant one later) and the photography, naturally rich with closeups, is precise and cool.

This is unquestionably a film for grownups. Its pace is measured though hardly slow, and it requires—and deserves—that attention be paid. It’s the kind of film that will arouse conversation, largely about the characters but about real-life relationships as well. Like most of Nichols’ movies, it’s also a little remote, a little too non-judgmental, but the characters and performances make this an exceptional drama.

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