Closer

Closer (1)When Mike Nichols made his early trilogy of marital-discord films — Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate, and Carnal Knowledge — he was in his late thirties, and had probably been through a few battles of the sexes himself. Nichols’ latest, Closer, finds him at age 73 and a bit gentler, even if the source material — Patrick Marber’s 1997 play of the same name — is harsher and more profane than anything Nichols has directed to date. Nichols has had a bumpy couple of decades; for every Primary Colors or The Birdcage, there’s a What Planet Are You From? or Regarding Henry. But this eternally inconsistent director has been working on HBO lately, helming the acclaimed Wit and Angels in America, and Closer is like one of those films — it’s only as good as its cast. Fortunately, it’s a good cast.

The movie spans something like four years in the lives of four people — two men, two women — who engage in various pairings designed to strip the characters to their cores. At the start, obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) spots radiant stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) on a London street; she is struck by a taxi, he whisks her to the hospital, and, presumably, a relationship is born. No sooner do we process that information than we leap forward, without warning or notation, to a period when Dan and Alice have been together for a while; he has now written a book, and is looking for someone else. He finds Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer who takes his book-jacket photo. They kiss; she backs away; he can’t stop thinking about her.

Obsessed with Anna, Dan arranges for her to meet a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen); the method by which Dan does this is best left for the non-prudish viewer to discover. Anna and Larry actually hit it off, and — again, somewhere outside the movie’s margins — they get married. But now Anna is obsessed with Dan. And Dan is about to inform Alice that he’s in love with Anna. Poor Larry, drawn into this by deception to begin with, can only fume and despair, and Alice takes off into the night. There’s more, but it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t actually reality — it’s an actors’-scene reality. Each of the four players gets a Great Scene, with Clive Owen having a clear edge in two moments when he lets us see the former working-class tough inside the domesticated doctor Larry.

Anyone expecting more than that — or led to expect more than that from the film’s raft of award nominations and critical bouquets — is likely to be disappointed. Closer is what I’d comfortably refer to as a “piece.” Aside from a clever ceiling view of Larry and Alice facing each other in the champagne room of a strip club, as filmmaking the movie is rather flat. Nichols isn’t terribly interested in razzle-dazzle here, and indeed, compared to his other recent feature films, Closer has a scrappy independent look and feel. He gives the actors space to seethe at each other. Roberts, looking freeze-dried in her character’s self-disgust, closes her features off from the camera but has enough natural charisma to get the audience to lean forward and come to her. Portman sells a couple of heartbroken speeches, and is effective as the most mystifying character, a self-described “waif” who seems to exist only to bring out the protective streak in men. (And women, too — an early, quiet confrontation between Alice and Anna is played with subtlety and precision.) The men are fools, led by the nose and libido (and insecurity) away from common sense, and Jude Law shows us the cracks in Dan’s armor, never thick to begin with, while Clive Owen drags Larry through degradation and bitter triumph.

These people are essentially abstract — theatrical constructs created to make friction. The characters are always confronting one another and demanding honesty, then sorely regretting the demand when it’s fulfilled. For whatever reason, the movie skips the play’s tragic final-scene revelation about one of the characters, turning it into a harmless “meet cute” earlier in the film. Anyone telling you Closer dispenses stark wisdom about life and love is a bit too easily impressed by the rare movie in which grown-ups actually have conversations instead of blowing each other up. But the movie is softened by Mike Nichols’ affection for the characters — or, rather, their dramatically abrasive potential.

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