Closer (United States, 2004)
If you pay attention to Hollywood's romantic comedies, the interaction between men and women is all about love and companionship. If you instead rely upon the philosophy of Closer, it's all about power. Closer starts like a nice romantic drama, with a couple of "meet cutes" (as Roger Ebert calls them), then does a 180-degree turn and shows what happens when happily ever after rots from the inside out. It isn't just the relationships that curdle, but the characters. Their interaction becomes bitter and cynical. Sex is a tool used in power struggles and one-upsmanship games. Although the word "love" is mentioned a few times, it has little place in this movie, where emotions are weaknesses to be exploited by others. With Closer, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber (translating his stage play) have ventured into Neil LaBute territory (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors). For Nichols, this is not new terrain - he has visited here twice previously, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. Put those two older films together with Closer and you get a grim trilogy that doesn't have a lot of good things to say about the human condition.
On the surface, Closer is the story of two couples whose infidelities rip them apart. Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) meet on the streets of London when she is hit by a car and he comes to her rescue. He takes her to a hospital and the pair are soon living together. But Dan, an obituary writer who has penned a novel, finds himself obsessed with Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer who takes the picture for his book jacket. He wants her, and tells her so, but she demurs when she learns he has a live-in girlfriend. "You're taken," she comments, as if that puts an end to things. Dan inadvertently introduces Larry (Clive Owen) to Anna when a practical joke (in which he pretends to be Anna in an Internet sex chat room) goes awry. The two start a romance, and are eventually married. But there's sexual chemistry between Dan and Anna, and, to a lesser extent, between Larry and Alice. Over the next four years (the film occasionally jumps forward by months in order to span that much time), infidelities occur, betrayals are discovered, and all manner of ugliness ensues. From a physical standpoint, Closer is not a violent film. From an emotional one, it's brutal. Nichols doesn't pull his punches. You leave the theater shaken.
The film is notable for its frank dialogue. There's plenty of profanity and also a host of interesting observations. (Although these characters speak with an erudition not found in conversations between real people.) Closer is talky, but in a smart way. You never feel that the characters are talking to hear their own words or to fill up screen time. Nevertheless, those unaware that the story began its life as a play will not be surprised to learn this fact. Yet the rawness of emotions keeps us from noticing how few sets there are, and how little conventional "action" occurs.
The film turns the tables on just about everyone. Users become victims, and vice versa. Innocence is corrupted, and corruption learns too late that there's no return path. Alice, who is arguably the most naïve member of the ensemble (despite being a stripper by profession), is hurt the most deeply, and that pain results in an irrevocable change. Larry, a decent guy when the film starts, turns into a cold, calculating man, having sex on at least two occasions to torment Dan. In the end, he wants to possess Anna not out of love, but because doing so means beating Dan. But to paint Dan as guiltless is unfair - he's a weasel (albeit a charming one) and an instigator. He cheats without concern for repercussions, then is astounded when any of them impact him. Anna is fundamentally weak and dishonest. She doles out and receives hurt in equal measures.
In Closer, the actors get a chance to shine, and no one is brighter than Clive Owen. Despite a number of memorable turns (and one big mistake: King Arthur), Owen still lacks household recognition. A likely (and deserved) Oscar nomination for this performance will change that. The ferocity with which Owen delivers his lines, and the restless energy he imparts to Larry, electrifies every scene that he's in. Closer's two most riveting sequences involve Owen and Natalie Portman - one in an art gallery where they first meet, and the other in a strip club where he has all the money but she has the power, and uses it.
Portman, in what has been called her first truly adult role (it's certainly nowhere close to Queen Amidala), is also very, very good. Like Owen, she must essay a character who undergoes a complete personality transformation - from vulnerable waif to ice queen seductress. There's a rawness and courage to her work (and, although there's no overt physical nudity due to camera placement, her scenes in the strip club are frank). The aforementioned scenes are Portman's highlights as well as Owen's, and she has one other - a heartbreaking moment in which she turns to the camera with tears on her face, and we recognize that the first piece of Alice's innocence has been stolen.
It would be unfair to describe either Julia Roberts' or Jude Law's performances as "lesser," but the two high-profile actors are not on the same level as their compatriots. Each has their moments, but neither captures the attention of the camera with the intensity of Owen or Portman. This is Roberts the actress, not Roberts the movie star (see Ocean's Twelve if you're craving for the latter), and her dedication to the role rather than glamour serves her well. Law is a little flat; I actually found him more convincing in Alfie.
Movies that look deeply into the human soul and uncover putrefaction are hard sells. But they are also some of the most fascinating films to be found. Are Nichols and Marber's characters too cynically drawn? Perhaps. Do they occasionally seem like marionettes manipulated by a clever writer? Yes. But those things don't diminish the film's compelling emotional qualities. Closer is powerful and disturbing stuff. It is not life-affirming, and it's not for those who want to leave a movie theater uplifted and convinced that fairy tale endings can happen. And this is most definitely not a date movie. But if you appreciate films that are more substance than style, that take challenges and don't follow formulas, and that feature Oscar-caliber performances, Closer is not to be missed.
Closer (United States, 2004)
Cast: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen
Screenplay: Patrick Marber, based on his play
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures