Archive for December, 2004

Closer

Saturday, December 11th, 2004

2003closer

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.

Criminal

Monday, December 6th, 2004

criminal

Movie review by Greg Carlson

A remake of Argentinean helmer Fabian Bielinsky’s “Nine Queens,” “Criminal” is a decent if unremarkable addition to the oft-worked con genre. The new film’s chief strength is the opportunity to see John C. Reilly, an indispensable actor who can make good on darn near any character he plays, take center stage. He is certainly an actor who deserves an opportunity to headline a movie or two. “Criminal” is also the directorial debut of longtime Steven Soderbergh associate Gregory Jacobs, and the first-timer does not stylistically crib from his boss as often as one would guess he might. Con artist movies depend upon the element of surprise and the durability of the bait and switch. A thorough enjoyment of “Criminal” will depend largely on whether or not you have seen “Nine Queens.”

Reilly plays Richard Gaddis, a mid-level flimflam man accustomed to making small scores on unsuspecting marks. Working some turf at a Los Angeles casino, he impersonates a police officer in order to make contact with Rodrigo (Diego Luna), a blundering grifter who gets caught trying to cheat cocktail waitresses out of tens and twenties when they bring him his change. Gaddis takes Rodrigo under his wing, suggesting to the eager youngster a one-day trial partnership. Rodrigo laps up the attention: not only does he want to learn some of the tricks of the trade, he also says he needs to pay off a substantial gambling debt owed by his father to some rough customers.

Gaddis and Rodrigo spend a short segment of their day fleecing Westwood senior citizens and arrogant waiters, but the chance for a big score comes along with a phone call from Gaddis’ sister Valerie (Maggie Gyllenhaal). Valerie is a well-connected concierge at a swanky hotel, and she connects her brother with Ochoa (Zitto Kazann), a brilliant forger trying to unload a bogus silver certificate on a wealthy foreign collector (Peter Mullan). At this point, “Criminal” steps on the gas, and director Jacobs has a fine time speeding through the dizzying roundelay of switches, turnabouts, and backbites, as everyone demands a percentage of the eventual take.

Remakes theoretically offer filmmakers the opportunity to improve on the originals, but this seldom happens. Jacobs’ biggest mistake was to mostly ignore Gyllenhaal, who brings much-needed electricity to the film every time she is included in a scene. Unfortunately, the movie does not capitalize on Gyllenhaal’s presence, and she ends up relegated to a part that demonstrates the very model of “too little, too late.”

“Criminal,” like other movies of its type (Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” is a good recent example), demands a certain leap of faith from its audience: when the final cons are revealed, brains start to shift into overdrive attempting to reconstruct the webbing that held it all together. Sure, some of the set-up incidents as depicted by Jacobs border on the outlandish, the illogical, and the far-fetched. Things are never really what they seem in the world of professional cheats, though, so one supposes that a filmmaker has as much right to mislead the audience as the swindlers who populate the story. The real trick of the con movie is to pull it off without having to defraud the viewers. “Criminal” does not quite manage to do that.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 12/6/04.