Movie review by Greg Carlson
Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own popular play, “Closer” turns out to be one of director Mike Nichols’ best films in years, despite some shortcomings in the material. Stalking around much of the same turf perpetually haunted by Neil LaBute, Nichols brings to the mix his own unique spin on the kinds of head games played by smart, beautiful losers. The veteran director channels some of the wit and most of the dexterity he used to helm “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Carnal Knowledge,” and “The Graduate,” making “Closer” one of those movies about people you might like to watch, but wouldn’t want to call your friends.
A crisscross of deception (self-directed and otherwise), seduction, betrayal, and ego, the success of Marber’s story depends upon its razor-sharp dialogue and the presence of an attractive quartet of performers. Natalie Portman’s Alice forgets to look the British way while crossing a London street, and gets creamed by a taxi just seconds before dashing obituary writer and struggling novelist Dan (Jude Law) swoops in to spirit her off to an emergency room. One cut later, and Dan is having his photo snapped by Anna (Julia Roberts) for the book jacket of a thinly veiled account of his relationship with Alice. Nichols clearly enjoys the freedom to move around in time, and he maintains the device throughout the film. Only occasionally do haircuts give things away; usually, we wait for a clue to fill us in on exactly how much time has slipped away between edit points.
“Closer” is mighty cynical about the things we do for love, and Marber’s writing obfuscates the motivations of all four of its characters. Why would Dan pursue Anna when he and Alice have it all? Why would Alice stay with Dan when she suspects he is unfaithful? Why do people practice infidelity in the first place? Once dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen, giving the best performance of the foursome) squares off the triangle by taking up with Anna, the drama tightens its noose and things get delightfully nasty.
Interestingly, Owen once played the role of Dan in a stage production, but he is gangbusters as Larry. It surely doesn’t hurt that Larry owns the two best-written scenes in the entire show: the first a lacerating showdown with Anna, the second a toxic demonstration of self-pity in a strip club with Alice. Portman and Roberts are fine actors, but both have trouble keeping up with Owen whenever the venom starts to drip. Roberts has the most difficult role to play, and she opts for subtlety and a perpetual case of the blue devils that strategically denies the audience her dazzling smile.
Another tremendously smart move made by the filmmakers leaves the majority of carnality off-screen. For a movie not afraid to talk about sex, “Closer” coyly omits virtually all traces of viewable physical intimacy. Detailed verbal descriptions are plentiful, but the various couplings are left to the imagination, a place that cooks up images far more libidinous than any wobbly-kneed montage. The downside of the technique is that much of the vulnerability and humanity of the characters is simultaneously erased, which offers even less reason for us to care about such damaged, misguided souls.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/11/04.