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Nichols and Cast Get ‘Closer’ to the Truths of Their Characters

by Chris Bellamy

Columbia Pictures
Directed by Mike Nichols
Screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on his play
Produced by Mike Nichols, John Calley, and Cary Brokaw
Starring Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman
Rated R

(out of four)

Alice is living with Dan, but Dan is sleeping with Anna. Anna is married to Larry, but she’s sleeping with Dan. Somewhere along the line, Larry sleeps with Alice. Over the course of several years, these four people Meet Cute, they fall in love, they cheat, they break up, they get back together again, they break up again…

And so it goes in Mike Nichols’s "Closer." Set in the appropriately dreary, overcast city of London, "Closer" follows the love lives—and let’s use the word ‘love’ very lightly here—of Dan (Jude Law), Anna (Julia Roberts), Alice (Natalie Portman) and Larry (Clive Owen) over about a four-year period, as they continually find new and exciting ways to get themselves into each others’ pants.

I hesitate to use the word ‘love’ because that’s not really what these characters are interested in, despite how often they throw the word around. These people use love as merely an excuse; as a means, rather than an end. The relationships in "Closer" (note the irony of the title) are fueled by obsession, excitement, and even revenge—never love. Dan meets Alice—a former stripper who has just moved from the states—in the film’s opening scene (he helps her get to the hospital after she is hit by a truck) and is immediately smitten. As we come to find out, it doesn’t take him long to leave his current girlfriend and move in with Alice. Fast-forward a year later: Dan, a writer of obituaries, is about to get his first novel published. Anna, a photographer, is taking his picture for the book jacket. Just like that, Dan is immediately infatuated with her—and it’s not long before he says he’s "in love."

Despite sharing a kiss with Dan during the photo shoot, Anna refuses his subsequent advances, despite his rather pathetic pleading. This sets up one of the film’s best scenes: To "get back" at Anna, Dan logs on to a sex chat room and, pretending to be "Anna," talks dirty (really dirty) in an obscene and brilliantly funny conversation with Larry. I’d feel embarrassed even trying to repeat any of it. To put the finishing touches on his little farce, Dan (as Anna) sets up an intimate meeting with Larry. The result, however, bites Dan right in the ass—Larry and the real Anna start dating, and eventually get married.

But even this relationship between Anna and Larry seems motivated not by love, but by pure spite. Eventually Dan and Anna meet again, and they have an affair, and things get serious, and Dan leaves Alice, and Anna leaves Larry and, despite all the passion and all the promises, all doesn’t always end well.

The characters that screenwriter and original playwright Patrick Marber has created are fascinating not because we like them, but because we seem to understand them a lot better than they understand themselves, as they wander around, oblivious of their own shallowness. This is an absurdly good-looking group of people—all of whom would probably live really happy lives if only they weren’t so deceptive, manipulative, and cruel. What a pity.

At times, we even want to like them. We want to believe them when they say ‘I love you.’ Larry, in particular, seems completely genuine in his feelings for Anna. He’s impeccably honest with her and looks genuinely heartbroken when his new bride announces she’s leaving him for Dan. He says he loves her and, perhaps because Owen’s performance is so convincing, we believe him. But, then again, we realize: At one point he freely admits to Anna that he has cheated on her with a prostitute. In a later scene, he treats her with such cheap and contemptuous disrespect, we have to doubt whether he really ever loved her at all. Probably not. In yet another scene, he boasts to Dan that he has "won" the little war of attrition for Anna’s heart. Yeah, he’s a real sweetheart.

Of all the characters, Alice is the most sympathetic. We always sense a deep pain just beneath the surface, we feel for her when she overhears part of the initial conversation between Dan and Anna, and again when Dan eventually leaves her. But as her character develops, we discover that she’s no saint, either.

It’s worth pointing out that, despite top billing from Jude Law and Julia Roberts, the two most interesting characters in the film—and the two best performances—are those of Clive Owen and Natalie Portman (proving once again she really can act as long as George Lucas isn’t involved). Their one extended scene together – which takes place in a private room of a London strip club – is one of the best-acted scenes I’ve seen this year. Every time I see Owen in a film, it feels like he should be a big movie star, but he just keeps slipping right under the radar. Perhaps his brilliant performance in "Closer"—which is almost guaranteed to get him his first Oscar nomination—will finally get him the notoriety he has long deserved.

Law and Roberts are both fine, but neither captures our attention in the same way their costars do. Roberts is a good actress, but this is not her best work. Perhaps that is only in comparison to the two standout performances; maybe she is simply overshadowed. Regardless, the way she plays Anna doesn’t always strike the right note. Her character doesn’t possess the cold bitchiness that the role requires. I can only imagine what someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones could do with such a character.

Director Mike Nichols—who won an Oscar 37 years ago for "The Graduate"—is in fine form again here, with the exception of the opening slow-motion scene, which lasts way too long. But what really stands out is the writing of Patrick Marber, who adapted the screenplay from his own play (in which Clive Owen starred, playing Dan). The script is rich in dialogue for our four heroes, and that’s unfortunately rare these days. It’s hard to really root for the characters in "Closer," and we don’t expect any of them to live happily ever after. But damn it if we aren’t curious anyway.

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