December 2, 2004
Since probing the molten depths of marital dysfunction in his debut feature, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), filmmaker Mike Nichols has generally played it cool.
Even in his best films (“The Graduate,” “Working Girl”), nothing has approached the raw human rancor of a boozy Liz Taylor going nuclear on a henpecked Richard Burton.
“Closer,” a vivid, biting tale of emotional treachery, comes close. In leading his four troubled lovers through a pitiless hopscotch of love and heartbreak, Nichols has created a sexy, unsparing dark comedy that looks, feels and smells romantic but has the heart of an executioner. Here, love isn’t just a fickle mistress — she’s a scheming schizoid harpy who often rewards our darkest impulses.
Adapted by screenwriter Patrick Marber from his own play, “Closer” actually begins on a sweet, hopeful note. Dan (Jude Law), a Londoner who writes obituaries, meets Alice (Natalie Portman), a rootless American stripper, and falls in love. “I’m a waif,” beams Alice, a girl playing a role.
Fast-forward one year: Dan has just sold his first novel and is tiring of Alice, now his live-in girlfriend. Impulsively, he makes a pass at Anna (Julia Roberts), an American photographer bemused by his deadpan declarations of love. Not to belabor the obvious, but Law (“Alfie”) and Roberts (“Erin Brockovich”) don’t exactly set off ugly alarms in their scenes together — they are, in fact, a habeñero-hot romantic duo. When Dan arrogantly seduces Anna in her studio, recalling the infamous fashion shoot-as-coitus scene in Michelangelo Antonioni's “Blow-Up” (1966), we bear witness to the year’s single sexiest movie moment.
Incapable of leaving Alice, Dan furtively courts Anna while she begins a relationship with Larry (Clive Owen from “Croupier”), a dermatologist with a stinging wit and a taste for kinky sex. Affairs ensue, followed by scenes of pleading and bargaining, wrenching confessions of adultery and four-sided recriminations to go around. It's all very geometrical.
In form, “Closer” is Nichols’ most ingenious effort since “Postcards From the Edge” (1990). Between scenes, the timeline surges forward in months and years, but Nichols announces the time passage through the dialogue alone. Initially disorienting, this technique actually tightens our focus on the characters: we scrutinize them for clues about the intervening months, how the dynamics have changed, who is with whom.
After flirting with metrosexual insufferability in “Alfie,” Law again plays a spoiled womanizer, albeit without that irritating facade of tragic nobility foisted upon him by hack director Charles Shyer. Similarly, Portman discovers her dark side under Nichols’ tutelage; her strip-tease scene with Owen neatly providing a riposte to her buttony, cutey-pie work in “Garden State” earlier this year. Owen is the most compelling we've seen him since “Croupier” and Roberts gives a dangerous, unapologetic performance that could seriously degrade her status as America’s sweetheart. Bully for Julia.
If you push aside the thorns, and shake yourself free of the seductive, spooky soundtrack (songster Damien Rice provides the signature tune), “Closer” does have coherent themes. For instance, the idea that certainty is the bane of romance. That love is nourished by exquisite deceptions. And that bringing someone down to your level sometimes, sadly, works.
Nestled into the framework of a romantic comedy, these cold, artsy themes yield a singular sort of burlesque. Nichols knows that the best comedy lies in contrast; as such, it's only fitting that we listen to Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” while two of his characters titillate each other with tacky Internet sex.