Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is close enough, thank you very much. Care for a breath mint?
Our review of Closer, published May 9th, 2005, is also available.
"Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it's better if you do."
Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22) doesn't do many films these days, but when he does, they're always worthy of attention. Closer, Nichols' adaptation of the Olivier- and Tony Award-winning stage play by playwright Patrick Marber, is definitely worthy of attention. But even a new fancy-schmancy Blu-ray transfer can't disguise the one fact that makes this film an enigma: it's impossible to like any of the characters in it.
Facts of the Case
Dan (Jude Law, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) is an obituary writer for a London newspaper. One day, he sees an attractive girl across the street. She promptly looks the wrong way, and walks into traffic. He takes her to the hospital, and eventually learns that her name is Alice (Natalie Portman, Garden State), she's American, and she's a stripper. They become lovers.
A year or so later, Dan—who has now written a book loosely based on Alice—is being photographed for his book jacket. The photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich), is also an American. Dan comes on to her like a ton of bricks, but Anna resists.
Some time later, Dan is fiddling around in an internet sex chatroom, pretending to be a woman named "Anna." He chats (graphically) with a dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen, Children of Men), and convinces him to meet her the next day at the London Aquarium for sex. Of course he winds up meeting the real Anna. They become lovers.
From that point on, these four just keep screwing each other—figuratively and literally.
Closer, more than anything else, is one of the best-acted films you could hope to see. (With only four characters, it has to be.) When Jude Law—who is no slouch in the acting department; see, e.g., Gattaca—is the weakest of the bunch, you're on to something. Closer is the film that reminded us all that Natalie Portman, when freed from the black hole of acting talent that is George Lucas, is one of the best young actresses working. It showed us that Julia Roberts can actually show depth, emotion, and subtlety. And it launched Clive Owen from relative obscurity to elite actor status—with good reason.
Owen alone is reason enough to watch this film. He is spectacular. Admittedly, he's a bit of a ringer, having originated the role of Dan (not Larry) in the play's London run. But here he plays Larry—probably the most complex character in the film—with a depth I've rarely seen. Whenever he's on the screen, you're transfixed. His big scene with Portman, where Larry finds Alice stripping at a London club, is electrifying. The two of them are so good that I almost forgot to notice that Natalie Portman was writhing around 95% naked. (That's a whole 'nother review unto itself…) Typical of play-based motion pictures, the lines they're speaking to each other don't really conform to the way real people speak, but the quality and impact of the writing goes a long way towards making up for that. The beauty of this play and script is how nuanced and detailed these characters are; Owen and Portman bring out all those nuances and put them right up there onto the screen. I can't praise these performances more highly; I have no clue (and had no clue at the time) why they didn't win the Best Supporting Actor/Actress awards for which they were nominated.
Roberts and Law don't quite live up to the excellence level of Owen and Portman. They're quite good, though. The shock is that Roberts is the better of the two. I'm not a big Julia Roberts fan; I thought her Oscar win was only marginally deserved, because I don't think Erin Brockovich was a very challenging role. Outside of romantic comedy, I didn't think she was capable of superior-level acting. Here, however, she is outstanding—just not as outstanding as Owen and Portman. Anna's pathology is almost as complex as Larry's, but in a totally different direction. Roberts hits all the right notes with Anna, fleshing out the character and not just falling back on being "Julia Roberts with problems." That leaves Law as the tail-end Charlie of the bunch. But Law isn't bad here; he's just not as stand-out fabulous as everyone else. (Plus, if he's playing a womanizing cad, I wonder if he's really acting…) He brings out Dan's charms, but Dan winds up having the least depth of the four characters here. Part of that is due to the script, but a lot of it is Law's fault. He simply doesn't inhabit this character as thoroughly as his co-stars did theirs.
Nichols deserves credit for adapting this play into a film that doesn't feel like a filmed play. Yes, it's talky and relatively static, but there's enough dynamism in the cinematography to help dispel the lingering feel of the play's confined staging. The fact that Marber himself adapted the play for the screen probably helped. The story is a bit Byzantine, and frequently jumps ahead in time without warning, but Marber does an excellent job placing scenes in their proper temporal context through dialog cues. Therefore, the viewer never gets lost in time, although they might miss some plot elements in the often rapid-fire streams of dialog if they aren't paying close(r) attention.
This isn't a film you'd expect to really stand out in high definition, yet this Blu-ray transfer was actually pretty impressive. Although the image has some softness to it at times, the color reproduction is outstanding, with the deep, rich blacks especially impressive. I noticed one instance of frame damage, which surprised me—wasn't 2004 only three years ago? And they still couldn't find a clean print of the film? But I digress. On the whole, the film looks great. Especially that stripping scene. The uncompressed PCM audio track doesn't add anything significant to the soundscape—this is a dialog-heavy film that doesn't truly exploit the surround field to any extent. It reproduces the dialog well, though, so I can't complain.
The only extra to speak of is a music video for Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice's "The Blower's Daughter," the song featured at the beginning and end of the film. Nothing against Rice (it's a good song), but that's a shame. I'd like to hear Nichols talk about the film, Marber discuss the play and its influences, and Owen and Portman talk about…well, anything. The lack of extras here is alarming—this is a film that did very well for Sony, was highly acclaimed by critics, and is being released as an early title on a new HD format…and this is all we get?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even though Closer is very well written, very well acted, and very well photographed, the four characters have such grievous character flaws that we, the viewers, wind up disliking them. Dan is a narcissist; Anna is a coward; Alice is a liar; and Larry is a sadist. The closest thing to a "hero" here is Alice, but even that's a stretch. She may be cute as a kitten, but she's got claws and isn't afraid to show them. The only reason we could possibly view her as the hero of the tale is because she isn't beyond redemption; she's clearly good-hearted deep down, and is still young enough to change. I'd love to have the opportunity to talk to Marber about this play/script, to see whether he really intended his characters to be this unappealing. Clearly he was going for a dishonesty vibe, and wanted to show that real-life relationships are complex and often contentious. He succeeds. But in the end, we feel like everyone pretty much got what they deserved. There's no real tragedy here; things played out (pun incidental, but embraced) exactly the way you'd predict they would given the flaws of the characters.
So Closer is an outstanding film that just leaves you feeling a bit cold towards it. There's absolutely nothing wrong with it, except that these aren't likeable people. If it had just one person for us to identify with and root for, it would be a classic. Instead, it feels…soulless. But maybe that's the whole point.
Closer is absolutely worth watching, because it's smart and well-acted. It's thought-provoking, and tells its story well. It looks pretty darned good in high definition, too. As long as you realize that you probably aren't going to care about this film, you should be able to enjoy it.
The four leads in Closer are sentenced to time served. Everyone else is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Music Video: "The Blower's Daughter" by Damien Rice
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