The title of the new Mike Nichols film, Closer, is a mislead. The film’s central theme is that intimacy is a lie, that the more entrenched a couple becomes in a relationship, the more they are divided by secrecy and deception. Closer shares elements with Carnal Knowledge, Nichols’ 1971 film (from Jules Feiffer’s script) about dysfunctional relationships, and it contends that little has changed between men and women in the ensuing decades. Closer depicts its men in a dismal, cynical light, but, if anything, the women’s fate is even worse. The men play power games in which they emotionally brutalize the women who are their helpless pawns, batted back and forth between lovers like a wounded mouse in the clutches of a cat. Men fight to possess women solely in order to assert their alpha-male status. Women don’t choose their partners; they are chosen. Their only power is in their ability to deceive.
Closer opens with a classic meet-cute but then attempts to puncture every romantic notion in the book, with the important exception that it still expects us to believe a woman will inevitably fall for a man if he pursues her relentlessly enough. The film tells the story of Dan Wolfe (Jude Law) a London obituary writer and failed novelist who falls in love, for a time, with a young American waitress/stripper named Alice Ayers (Natalie Portman). When Dan is photographed for the jacket of his first book, he makes a pass at the photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts), who succumbs to his charms just long enough for a single kiss. After she shoots him down, Dan becomes obsessed with her and inadvertently introduces her to a horny doctor named Larry (Clive Owen). The two joust for her affections, with Alice available as a consolation prize to whomever is on the outs with Anna at a given moment.
Dan and Larry one-up each other over and again; marking their territory, forcing their women to negotiate a truce, and then launching a new salvo against the enemy. There’s a brief suggestion that they’re aware of what’s going on — that they’re really fucking each other, with the women serving as stand-ins — but it’s quickly forgotten. Everything they do is about aggression, not passion. The film offers excellent support to those radical feminists who used to say that all heterosexual sex is rape.
The film feels almost like a rebuke to those of us who thought Nichols’ adaptation of Angels in America seemed too stage-bound. Closer has been opened out into a number of locations, but little effort has been made to adapt the dialogue to the purposes of film. But it may be unfair to blame Nichols — aside from its lacquered visual style (the cinematography is by Stephen Goldblatt, who gave Angels a similar diorama-like aspect), it hardly appears to have been directed at all. The screenplay is by Patrick Marber, adapting his own award-winning play, and the film amply demonstrates the reasons why another writer is often the better choice for an adaptation. Marber was so attached to his hyper-articulate, “insightful” dialogue that he failed to realize that its essential staginess would sound ridiculous on film. His script has no real characters, only various mouthpieces for his cynical observations about relationships. They are masochists who seem to get as much dirty pleasure out of being hurt and shamed as they do hooking up. No one really knows anyone else, but they don’t know themselves either, because there’s nothing to know. There’s nothing inside them; each is a cipher made to suffer and to hurt others. They play games with words that complement their mind games; they contradict themselves, backing and filling, but it’s the audience they’re addressing, not each other. Scene after scene curls up and dies beneath the weight of all that precise diction. The staccato rhythms of the several confrontation scenes have as much to do with normal speech as “Flight of the Bumblebee” has to do with an insect’s buzzing.
The film doesn’t take place in any recognizable world; it’s heightened and made to feel artificial in a way that’s similar to Woody Allen films during his Bergman-homage period. The characters behave like characters, not people, falling in and out of love as though they were flipping a switch, forming immediate connections and sharing confidences upon first meeting. Their interior monologues are brought right out into the open, delivered to whomever’s handy with no sense of modesty or decorum. The feeling of discontinuity is heightened by the slapdash editing; the actors’ positions don’t match up from shot to shot, making the viewer too aware of the camera.
The story unfolds through a series of duologues between various pairings of its four characters (only once do three of the actors converse together, and only for a brief moment). We never see anyone having sex — that would be too sensual for Marber’s clinical approach — instead we hear uncomfortably detailed descriptions of the act. The film’s sexual frankness is a slap in the face — who ever wanted to hear Julia Roberts describe herself being taken from behind?
Roberts is startlingly good in her first scene, giving Anna a compelling presence that makes her more than a plot device. It’s the most naturalistic performance in the film — she seems to benefit from her relative lack of stage experience — and she displays an appealing tough-mindedness. Her Anna is strong and smart, with a severity that’s miles from her showier tough-gal performance in Erin Brockovich. Anna has been made a photographer so that we understand she sees things more clearly than other people, penetrates facades to find the rotten soul beneath. Roberts has been given the look of the competent female shutterbug, all tailored blouses and carelessly pulled-back hair, Margaret Bourke-White by way of Annie Leibovitz (though her work owes more to Avedon). Maturity has made Roberts’ sumptuous features more spare and sculptural, and the look works for the hard/soft Anna, who exploits her subjects as she elevates them. In an earlier age, this would be a Katharine Hepburn role: slightly mannish, too quick and flinty-eyed to fall for a cheap line. Roberts plays her that way initially, but she’s betrayed by the script. Anna’s onto Dan from their first meeting, so it makes no sense later when she’s taken in by his charms. Nor do we understand why a woman like Anna would go for Larry, who’s a bit of a sleaze. In the film’s conception, she really doesn’t have a better choice, since all men are bastards.
Owen, who appeared in the original stage production as Dan, gives Larry a hint of Neanderthal intensity that helps him rise above the stagy dialogue, and he manages to create audience empathy with a character who is basically a rotter from beginning to end. Law and Portman fair less well, forced to give too many long, overwritten speeches constructed from non sequiturs and faux-incisive epigrams. Dan is the amoral womanizer Law should have been in Alfie, but he’s having even less fun here. And Portman’s innocent quality is used as a bludgeon to make her sordid circumstances that much seamier. Her nubile flesh is on frequent display, no doubt to the delight of the pervs in the audience who have been waiting 10 years for her to take off her clothes. But, as she looks virtually the same now as she did before she became legal, it’s squirmy viewing for the rest of us. She does get the film’s single joke, though: In the back room of a strip club, she’s just finished enumerating the ground rules for a private dance when her client suddenly begins sobbing uncontrollably. “There’s no crying in here,” she adds placidly.
Closer gives us its distasteful view of relationships without comment, as if it were inevitable that men and women should behave this way. It’s the most uncomfortable film I’ve watched since Unfaithful, and for some of the same reasons. Such a strong, visceral reaction might count for something if either film seemed to reveal some useful truth about relations between the sexes, but in both cases all that’s going on is the trying-on of ugly, cynical attitudes.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Closer / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()