Judge Joe Armenio can't take his eyes off you.
Our review of Closer (Blu-Ray), published May 22nd, 2007, is also available.
If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking.
It's hard not to compare Mike Nichols' Closer to his 1966 directorial debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both films are four-character dramas on the theme of romance as combat, and both are adapted from plays (Closer was written by Patrick Marber and based on his own work, while Virginia Woolf? had a script by Ernest Lehman, from Edward Albee's play). Closer never achieves the sustained, and ultimately cathartic, intensity that makes the earlier film so powerful, and its jaundiced view of relationships seems abstract and self-conscious, while in Virginia Woolf? the anger is powerfully rooted in the specifics of a relationship. Marber's occasionally purple dialogue is also no match for Lehman's perfectly pitched barbed wit, but I'll knock it off with the comparisons now and try to evaluate the film on its own terms.
Facts of the Case
Closer is set in London, where American expatriate and sometime stripper Alice (Natalie Portman, Garden State) and obituary writer and aspiring novelist Dan (Jude Law, Alfie) meet cute when she's struck (glancingly) by a car. Enter, eventually, Anna (Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile), another American expat and a photographer with whom Dan becomes infatuated. Anna then gets involved with a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen, Croupier). There are flirtations, infidelities (which occur tastefully off-camera), and power plays. The film is like a Hollywood romance seen through a distorting mirror: We have the glamorous stars, the cute meetings, and the wry dialogue, but at the service of a vision of love that's anything but comforting.
Portman's character is the intended emotional center of the film, and she does an admirable job with a flashy role that allows her to swing from kittenish teasing to calm self-possession to touching vulnerability. The script's clear implication is that Alice's entire life, like her stripping, is a performance; she is, as she says at one particularly intense moment, "no one." This idea is also conveyed visually, maybe a little too obviously, through her ever-changing hair color. She's matched, however, by Owen's Larry, who is powerful as a man with a raging sex drive and an even deeper desire for intimacy. Law's performance is lazier, as he's too easygoing to be as neurotic and deceptive as Dan is supposed to be. Roberts has the thinnest role; she has little to do most of the time except pout and play the straight woman to others' explosions.
Early in Closer, it seems like the film might become a dark satire, especially in the scene in which Dan, pretending to be a monumentally horny woman, seduces Larry online. Set to a theme from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" and admirably orchestrated by Nichols, this might be the first time ever that pornographic online chatting has been rendered cinematic. (I know less about opera than anyone in the world, but apparently "Cosi Fan Tutte" also deals with the couplings and uncouplings of four lovers. Later in the film Dan and Anna go to a performance of this Mozart piece, although they don't seem to see much of it.)
After this, though, the film retreats from satire and becomes a quick-witted but sincere drama, with most of its strongest scenes clustered around the middle. The best, for me, is the encounter between Alice and Larry at her strip club, a venue which captures the film's most potent theme—the frustrating ways in which intimacy and distance coexist. The scene is also a fine actors' showcase, as Portman demonstrates the way Alice uses her wit and sex appeal as protective armor, while Owen shows how quickly Larry's ingratiating charm turns to frustrated malice when he doesn't get his way. The breakup scenes between the two couples (Dan/Alice, Larry/Anna) are intercut, and achieve a nice rhythm (elsewhere the cutting within scenes feels a little fidgety; I'd think Nichols was worried about how to make such talky material cinematic if he hadn't done it so many times before). These scenes are also wonderfully played by Portman and Owen, who careen from anger and tenderness and back again in a way that anyone who has been dumped will recognize.
The last half hour of the film doesn't work as well. It seems as if Marber is afraid that his ideas aren't coming across explicitly enough, so the scenes start to feel too much like attempts to sum up the movie's themes (something that the strip club scene already does effortlessly). The dialogue also gets effusive to the point of silliness. Throughout, of course, the script has been theatrical, with no claim to "realism"; these are people who talk about their relationships directly, in complete idea-filled sentences, rather than in the halting, stuttering, euphemistic way common to most real human beings. However, Marber goes over the top at the end of the film—when Larry delivers the line, "Have you ever seen the human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood," in the middle of a heated confrontation with Dan, I groaned a little even though I knew it was coming, having seen the movie once before. This tendency culminates in Closer's final twist, which I won't give away except to say that it's too self-consciously clever and pat.
I should say something about the film's structure, in which there's an admirably subtle use of the narrative-hopping that's been fashionable since Pulp Fiction skipped disorientingly backward and forward through its stories eleven years ago. Closer takes place over the course of four years but often jumps ahead a few months or a year at a time, concentrating on periods of crisis in the relationships portrayed. Nichols gives us no helpful transitional scenes or "one year later" titles to inform us of these shifts, relying on dialogue to convey the information, which it always does with impressive naturalness. This refusal to provide transitional passages helps to give the film a sort of focus that it could easily lose by covering such a long stretch of time.
Sony has released Closer in a "Superbit" edition, meaning that almost all of the disc's capacity is used for video and audio. The picture is indeed impeccable, but at the expense of having a DVD without many frills; even the menus are simply presented. The only extra here is the five-minute video for "The Blower's Daughter" by Damien Rice, the mawkish song featured at the beginning and end of the film.
Much of the criticism of Closer upon its release focused on its unsympathetic characters and bleak worldview, as if films aren't allowed to contain mean people unless they're conveniently labeled villains, and shouldn't dare to express the opinion that relationships frequently cause people to act badly and get hurt. My reaction was different: All of the characters act from emotional weakness rather than malice (or a malice caused by emotional weakness), and I felt a sort of pity and humanist sympathy for them, rather than hatred (okay, maybe I hated Larry a little).
Closer is certainly not a great movie, but it doesn't deserve to be dismissed just for its alleged coldness. Why does every film have to be warm, anyway?
These four people are guilty of a lot of crimes, but they sure aren't ones over which this court has jurisdiction.
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Scales of Justice
• Damien Rice Music Video: "The Blower's Daughter"
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