Closer is the latest release by Mike Nichols, who hasn't released a movie I've enjoyed since Working Girl
in 1988 (and even that one I'm only so-so on). Most recently, Mix Master Mike earned acclaim for the overrated demagoguery of Angels in America
on HBO. He returns to movie theaters with this adaptation of the Patrick Marber play of the same name, the story of two couples whose infidelities overlap in intriguing and not neccessarily expected ways.
It gets better after the first sequence, I promise.
For some bizarre reason, possibly ether-related, Nichols decides to open the film with a thoroughly ridiculous slow-motion shot, set to the strained ballad "The Blower's Daughter" by 2003 Shortlist winner Damien Rice. The song is one of those post-Dave Matthews breathy, whispery jobs, where the singer informs you about the depth of his emotions by over-pronouncing random words. In this case, it's "eyes," and so the phrase "I can't take my eyes off of you" becomes "I can't take my eeeeee-yieeeeee-yes off of you." Cause, you know, he's in love and stuff.
So, Jude Law's frustrated novelist Dan walks towards Natalie Portman's punkish American gal Alice on the streets of London in slow motion, Damien Rice's eeeeiiiiiieeeeeesssssss can't be taken off of her, and then she's hit by a taxi. I swear. It's sudden, ludicrous, and so surreal that you half expect Dan to take off his glasses, rub his eyes, and look back only to see everyone on the street around him looking at him like he's insane. But, no, it's real, Alice is down for the count, and Dan rushes her to the hospital. And there, in the waiting area, they begin to conversate, and the movie gains its footing.
What transpires will feel vaguely familiar to anyone with a history of watching movies about turbulent romance. People meet, fall desperately in love, and break one another's hearts in fairly quick succession. The movie succeeds not by carving out any new terrain in the battle of the sexes, but by astutely observing its central four characters, and providing you with just enough information to invest in the drama, but not so much activity as to overwhelm quiet, individual moments.
Soon enough during the course of Dan and Alice's romance, complications arise. Dan has fallen for the feisty, recently divorced Anna (a subdued Julia Roberts), who says she wants nothing to do with him. He plays a cruel joke on her (in one of the film's few lively, comic set-pieces) that winds up bringing her in contact with Larry (Clive Owen), the man of her dreams, whom she later marries. Over the course of the next few years, there are numerous infidelities on the part of each individual member of each couple.
Nichols' sense of pacing here is immaculate; we never feel that the relationships or conversations are being "rushed," as occurs so often in films about budding romance. However, there is something of a frenetic feeling to the creation and dissolution of these affairs. Characters seem a bit hasty to fall in and out of love, and I suppose on some level, this is the point. As Alice notes in a monologue near the film's opening, when a great love has ended, it's best to simply break someone's heart and leave immediately after, so as not to prolong the drama.
As happens with any theatrical adaptation, the passage of time in the film is handled rather abruptly. There were, I fear, woefully few transitional sequences added from play to film, so scenes tend to open with some obvious throwaway line to give the audience its bearings (generally of the "Alice! I haven't seen you in three long months!" variety). Sometimes it works, other times not so well.
But despite any structural deficiencies, the film moves along in surprisingly entertaining fashion, particularly considering the heavy nature of the material. Most of this must be credited to the performers, who keep an admittedly dialogue-intensive film from feeling too weighty for a Friday night at the movies. One of the great touches of Marber's script is its fluidity. We're never quite sure how to feel about anyone, and rarely get even a glimpse at the true moral character of the protagonists until the flm's final moments. (There are really no heroes or villains in a film where everyone cheats on each other).
In this way, it reminds me of Neil LaBute's caustic Your Friends and Neighbors.
But while that film argued that human beings are either sadists or cowards, Closer
sees these qualities intertwined inside all of us. In this way, it mirrors Godard's Contempt
, with its intimate exploration of the life-altering, confusing transition that suddenly occurs when a great love ends.
Clive Owen, who also appeared in the stage version of Closer
, appropriately gets the meatiest role, taking Dr. Larry from needy pervert to vengeful manipulator to pained everyman in a series of sequences that could very well net him recognition come awards time. Will this film finally bring him the acclaim he so desperately deserves Stateside? Let's hope.
Portman also does a nice job with a tricky role. The much-discussed nude scene no longer appears (sorry, dudes), but she's on display in stripper-wear enough to satisfy the horndogs like myself in the audience. Alice is a lovely character, cold and distant in the way of all truly desirable movie women, and Portman's well-cast in the part. I must confess to harboring some leftover animosity for her participation in the disgracefully cloying wannabe tearjerker Garden State
earlier this year. I tried, successfully I hope, not to let it influence my feelings on this movie.
The film ends in much the same way as it begins, with Damien moaning about his eeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiicccccccceeeeeeeeee and Natalie strutting across the street in slo-mo. It annoyed me less the second time around (possibly because I knew the Rice song would be over momentarily, and I already knew the movie was good), but it's still not the best bookend. I'm not quite sure why Nichols decided to go so over-the-top for the film's beginning and end, particularly when the film's mid-section goes for intense, brutal realism rather than spaced-out movie fantasy.