Director : Mike Nichols
Screenplay : Patrick Marber (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Natalie Portman (Alice), Jude Law (Dan), Julia Roberts (Anna), Clive Owen (Larry), Nick Hobbs (Taxi Driver)
Back in 1971, while writing about Mike Nichols’ boundary-pushing drama Carnal Knowledge, the film critic Pauline Kael noted, “The characters are depersonalized from the start through the elimination of all the possibilities in their lives except sex drives—not only love and work and family and affection are eliminated, but even eroticism, even simple warmth …” She could just as easily have been writing about Nichols’ new film, Closer, which, like Carnal Knowledge, is about men and women’s attitudes toward love and sex and, like that film, is just as single-minded in its disillusion and narrow vision.
Now, disillusion does not in and of itself a bad film make. In fact, many great films have explored the depths of spiritual malaise and dehumanization to great effect—one might think of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men (1997). Such films are not always pleasant to watch, but they give the viewer cause for thought and reflection because they situate the inhumanity with which people can treat each other within a humanistic framework. In other words, they have context.
Closer has no context and, more importantly, no soul. Rather, it is simply a series of scenes of people betraying each other, lying to each other, screwing each other over for reasons that are never explained beyond the simple fact that they are selfish and short-sighted. The filmmakers will claim that Closer is a candid portrait love in the modern world, but look closely and you will see that there is no love in the film … anywhere. They’re so eager to jump to the next nihilistic instance of loved ones mistreating each other that they never stop to show us why and how these people love each other and, most importantly, what they’re losing when they part ways. There’s no connective tissue among the conflicts, thus the conflicts come across as cold and essentially meaningless; verbal and emotional violence for its own sake.
Nichols has certainly brought together a fantastic cast—Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Cliver Owen—and the actors do all they can to imbue life into the overly theatrical dialogue of the screenplay by Patrick Marber, who adapted his own play. Of course, because all the actors are “beautiful people,” it is sometimes hard to get past their movie star wattage and see them as ordinary people caught up in life’s circumstances. There’s an (intentionally?) ironic scene near the middle of the film in which one character critiques a photo exhibit by noting that it’s all “lies” because it’s just a bunch of photographs of sad people made to look beautiful through lighting and composition. Closer is the opposite, though no less truthful, because it’s just beautiful people made to look sad.
The film begins with Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer and struggling novelist, making eye contact on a crowded London street with Alice (Natalie Portman), a punky-looking young American stripper who has just arrived. Their meeting is established in a slow-motion sequence set to Damien Rice’s exquisitely emotional song “The Blower’s Daughter” (it says something about the film that this one song packs more of an emotional punch than the entire storyline). It’s slight twist on the Hollywood cliché “meet cute,” in which Alice is so enthralled with looking at Dan that she gets hit by a car, and he accompanies her to the hospital. They talk, get to know each other a little, are obviously very attracted to each other.
Then, in the first of the film’s major unmarked temporal leaps, the story jumps forward several years to Dan being photographed by Anna (Julia Roberts). He has just published a book that is largely about Alice, but she is far from his mind as he flirts with Anna and then kisses her. Of course, we haven’t actually seen Dan and Alice together at all, so we have no sense of their happiness or unhappiness, and the abrupt manner in which Dan attempts to seduce Anna comes across as so smarmy that any good will he developed in the film’s opening sequence is effectively crushed.
Things get even more complicated when Anna begins dating Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist whose ironic first meeting with Anna is compelled by Dan mischievously role-playing a horny girl named Anna in a sex chat room and telling Larry to meet him at the aquarium where he knows the real Anna likes to hang out. (A highly unlikely plot device, but give credit to its creativity and also to the sometimes hilariously randy dialogue Dan and Larry exchange.)
Suffice it to say that these four characters end up swapping lovers amongst themselves for the rest of the film, with each one betraying someone else (with the possible exception of Alice, whose true betrayal isn’t revealed until the film’s final moments). Again, these betrayals are meant to be emotionally devastating moments of internal turmoil and external anger writ large in the world of modern-day romance, but there’s no context to give the scenes shape. In some ways, Closer is just like the recent horror film The Grudge, except instead of mechanistically hammering away with “boo” moment after “boo” moment with little in the way of narrative to connect them, it hammers away with seemingly endless hysterical emotional climaxes.
It also doesn’t help that the characters are so uniformly dislikable (again, with the possible exception of Alice) that it’s hard to muster much sympathy for their plights. A perfect example is the scene in which Anna finally comes clean to Larry, whom she married a few months earlier, that she has been carrying on an affair with Dan for the past year. One wants to feel something for either of these characters, but you can’t because (a) Anna’s secret relationship with Dan is never shown and the interactions between them that are shown portray Dan as a lecherous stalker and Anna as ambivalent at best about his advances, and (b) just before this big revelation, Larry drops the bombshell that he slept with a prostitute while on the business trip from which he just returned.
So, instead of being emotionally involved in the blow-up that follows, we are detached from the action and can only sit back and clinically observe the continuing self-destructiveness, perhaps taking some kind of perverse pleasure in the piercing vulgarity of the overly well-written dialogue. Again, I’m not saying that flawed characters are inherently distancing, but there is a difference between a film that uses character flaws to humanize (see, for example, Alexander Payne’s wonderful Sideways) and those that use them to dehumanize.
In a normal story, a husband, wife, or lover confessing to an affair would be a climax, an emotionally riveting moment on which the entire narrative turns. Yet, in Closer, this happens so many times that, by confession number six, it’s hard to care anymore. The only thing Closer reveals is the ugly mechanics of how miserable people make themselves and the people they profess to love even more miserable. What a revelation.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures