Elegant, spare, flawlessly acted, and directed with great style by a masterful filmmaker, Closer is much easier to admire than actually like.
To begin with, I can’t help but question the wisdom of releasing this film at this time of year. Last week’s top five movies at the box-office have one thing in common: They all have either a G or PG rating. Now here comes this very R-rated, very straightforward examination of four of the least likable human beings imaginable. If the dubious assertion that Charles Shyer’s Alfie died at the box-office because of the supposed “heightened morality” of the moment is actually on target, then it’s not hard to envision that an even more negative reaction is in store for Closer.
The chances for such a reaction are greatly increased by the fact that the movie stars the generally “safe” Julia Roberts. With her on board, some viewers might get upset in the way they did about the language in the Coen Brothers’ The Ladykillers, because it starred “that nice boy, Tom Hanks.”
So if you’re put off by raw language and frank sexuality, this is not — not — the movie for you. Nor is this the movie for you if you found Alfie too downbeat and depressing; compared to Closer, Alfie is the feel-good movie of the year.
However, if you’re up to it, Closer is a rare chance to see four fine actors who are at the top of their game guided by a brilliant director. It’s ironic and encouraging to find that, after years of making so-so movies like Wolf, The Birdcage and Regarding Henry, 73-year-old Mike Nichols has made one of the most daring films of the year. Nichols once electrified — and frequently upset — the movie-going world with works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and Catch-22.
Nichols seems to have found himself again by doing TV films like Wit and Angels in America and now this movie. Closer is all the more surprising because it’s not just a TV film. (Disgracefully, TV films are all too often the only venues left open to filmmakers who are eligible for that 10 percent discount at Long John Silver’s.)
The movie business is nothing if not ageist, and hopefully Closer will clue some people in on what we’re missing by relegating some of our best filmmakers to the small screen just because they’re no longer in the first flush of youth.
Adapted from the play by Patrick Marber, Closer examines the convoluted romantic entanglements of four characters: a writer, Dan (Jude Law), a photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts), a dermatologist, Larry (Clive Owen), and a stripper, Alice (Natalie Portman). All of them are maddeningly attractive people. But despite their charm, sophistication and wit, all of them are utterly appalling and seem to exist for no other reason than to hurt each other.
The entanglements start when Dan meets Alice at the moment she’s struck down by a taxi. If this was a comedy, they’d be “meeting cute,” which is the movie’s first clue to the fact that it’s a deconstruction of romantic fantasies. The narrative then flashes forward to Dan, who was previously an obituary writer for a London paper, having his photograph taken by Anna for the dust-jacket of his first book. There’s an immediate attraction between the two, which they nearly act on, but not quite.
Instead, the story jumps forward to its most perverse example of “meeting cute.” We find Dan, who’s pretending to be a woman in an online chat room (plenty of subtext here), luring Larry to a meeting that engineers his introduction to Anna.
In the same fragmented manner, the film then follows the various relationships as the characters move back and forth between partners in a wholly self-serving manner. They vacillate so much that it’s impossible to tell if any of them are capable of loving anything other than the game of conquest.
What’s more, it’s not even clear if they’re making the conquests they desire. For example, there’s no assurance that the online chat between Dan and Larry will produce the meeting that it does, so it’s impossible to be sure if that’s even the rationale behind Dan’s actions. This is even more open to question when the pair discuss it later. “I wanted to kill you,” Larry tells him. “I thought you wanted to f*** me,” counters Dan.
The irony is that the motivation is self-destructive in any case, since it either sets up an impossible meeting or puts an obstacle in Dan’s path to Anna — unless, of course, Anna isn’t worth the bother if Dan doesn’t get to cuckold someone in the process.
Closer is full of such complex emotional possibilities. At bottom, it’s a strong work about relationships wherein the truth is secondary to the impact of what is said. In fact, the film’s ultimate irony is that its one verifiable truth is the one that no one believes — and secondly, that Alice, who seems the most innocent of the quartet, may in fact be the most duplicitous.
The performances are nothing short of stunning (something I never thought I’d say concerning Roberts and Owen). Nichols’ direction is something more than that.
Taking a page from several of his previous works, he presents the film with what is essentially a natural soundtrack. Apart from two songs by Damien Rice, whose “The Blower’s Daughter” sets the tone for the film and closes it, the music is always from an identifiable source in the movie: a radio, a CD player, a trip to the opera, and such. This unusual underscoring makes it seem as if the characters are actually orchestrating their own lives. What’s unusual about this effect is that it underlines the basic stylized approach of the film, rather than making the movie naturalistic in any regular sense of the term.
If there’s a single fault with the film, it lies in the dialogue being too perfectly tuned; every character is just a little too articulate to be entirely believable. But in an era when good dialogue is increasingly rare, I’m not about to kvetch too much about that. Rated R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke