directed by Mike Nichols
starring Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Dan meets Alice. Dan falls for Alice. Alice falls for Dan. Dan meets Anna. Dan falls for Anna. Anna rejects Dan—because he’s still with Alice. Anna meets Larry. Larry falls for Anna. Anna dates Larry. Anna falls for Dan (who’s still with Alice). Anna and Dan start shagging. Anna marries Larry, but goes on shagging Dan. And oh, did I mention Dan was still with Alice?
And there you have it: the plot of “Closer.” (Well, the first half, anyway; far be it from me to give the rest of it away.) But the plot is the least significant part of what may well be one of the most exquisitely crafted movies of the year—not to mention one of the best acted and directed. It helps, of course, to have Mike Nichols (“The Graduate,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, HBO’s “Angels in America”) at the helm and a cast comprised of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen.
Romantics are likely to recoil from “Closer,” while cynics may dismiss it as far too pretty. Both are right, to a point. Based on the play by Patrick Marber, this is “Coupling” gone sour: the four characters fall in love (or think they do), then proceed to betray and manipulate each other without compunction, and inevitably tell each other all about it, down to the most painfully intimate details of their infidelities. Yet for all the raw emotion and graphic sexual dialogue on display, “Closer” is a coolly elegant movie, a translucent vessel that contains and decants the human cruelties and follies within.
Rarely does a stage play translate so smoothly to the screen: here, it didn’t even hit me that that there were only four speaking parts until long after the credits had rolled. However, there’s no mistaking the movie’s theatrical origins in the sharp rhythms of the dialogue, the neat symmetry of the pairings, and the parallel and criss-crossing plot lines, from the lighting of a cigarette to a hand raised impulsively to strike. At the same time, Nichols invests “Closer” with an unmistakably cinematic quality. Beautifully shot and backlit, it shifts seamlessly from the deep shadows and mood indigo of an aquarium or art gallery to the bright, open space of a photographer’s studio, and features stars who manage to look improbably luminous even when most haggard or heartsick.
For some, this high-gloss finish may be the movie’s weakness. In one scene, Alice (Portman), wandering through Anna’s gallery opening, stops to gaze at a huge black-and-white photograph of her own tearstained face. It is, in a word, gorgeous. Unmoved, she delivers a stinging critique of the artist for creating false beauty out of other people’s pain and sorrow without understanding anything about the emotions she captures. This criticism may be fairly directed at the film as a whole. But I think of it differently. “Closer” put me in mind of my favorite painter, Edward Hopper. What’s depicted is only surfaces—appropriate for a movie whose protagonists include a photographer, a dermatologist, and a stripper—leaving the viewer to fill in any inner depths. It shows scenes of apparent intimacy—between people who simultaneously seem locked in pools of isolation. The existence of any connection, the meaning of any apparent attempt to communicate, is again left to one’s subjective inference. That was Hopper’s particular genius: Is the woman in the picture sad, content, pensive? Is she aware of the man looking at her? Is the man even looking at her, or is he staring absently into space? It is equally true of “Closer.” What you get is what you see.
What I saw in “Closer” was the ephemerality of human connection, and the hunger to recapture that connection, or the illusion of connection, again and again. The selfishness of truth-seeking, masquerading as a desire for honesty. And the more primal struggle for dominance and sexual one-upmanship that seems to hearken back to the basic rules of mating. What I didn’t see was a history, a context, or a rich inner life to any of the characters, all of whom are admittedly, and probably deliberately, underwritten. Still, the actors miraculously succeed in breathing real life into them. Law underplays his natural charm as Dan, the fickle obituary writer, but Owen easily eclipses him as the wonderfully feral “Dr. Larry.” The women are dealt more opaque characters, and rise to the challenge. Portman conveys unexpected gravitas as Alice, the unlikely stripper. No, she doesn’t get naked, and no, it isn’t really creepy that she looks about fourteen: that she plays Alice as a waifish sprite works rather to her advantage. Her elusiveness is her secret strength, and allows her to deliver her most incisive lines when she seems most vulnerable.
But it’s Roberts as Anna who proves to be the movie’s quietest surprise. Far from attempting to ingratiate the audience, Julia-style, she smiles rarely, and when she does it’s as often ironic or uncertain as radiant—as in her first, wickedly funny encounter with Larry. Her character is elusive in a different way from Alice, and in some ways the least sympathetic of the quartet. Among them, she seems at once the least and most affected by love: least penetrated by its passions, yet most driven by its vagaries. Yet Roberts somehow grounds Anna’s faithlessness, makes her oddly convincing (and not wholly unsympathetic) by investing her with a reticence that has its own, enigmatic dignity. That reticence is the hallmark of “Closer” as a whole, and the reason it succeeds on its own terms. Like the best art, it both invites and resists analysis.
RATING: *** 1/4