A film review by Craig J. Koban



2004, R, 101 mins.

Anna: Julia Roberts / Dan: Jude Law / Alice: Natalie Portman / Larry: Clive Owen / Car driver: Steve Benham

Directed by Mike Nichols / Written by Patrick Marber

"Adultery is the application of democracy to love." 

-Henry Louis Mencken 

Some say that the cornerstone to every great relationship between a man and a woman is honesty.  That assertion just may be a hard proverbial pill to swallow, especially after watching Mike Nichols' daring and brilliant new drama CLOSER.   

After the misfire that was 2000’s WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?, Nichols is returning to fine form once again, first with ANGELS IN AMERICA from 2003 and finally with CLOSER, a film of unrelenting honesty and frank nihilism about its subject matter.  The film is viscous in its insightfulness and nearly paralyzing in the way it shows the inner tragedy of its characters.   It ostensibly tells the story of two sets of couples, all of which have committed adultery, often to their own frank admission to their respective partners.   If adultery is a form of sick democracy, than the characters of CLOSER are all willing participants.

The sheer genius of Nichols' work here is just how sparse it is in terms of subject matter (realistically, the four main characters don’t interact with anyone but themselves for the film’s two hours).  However, it also succeeds in how it miraculously manages the viewer to reflect upon the characters and feel for them in some sort of cold and detached way.  As the film unfolds we slowly learn to understand the personas and become attached to them all individually with a certain level of resonation and care, all of this despite the fact that, in reality, the characters seem hell bent on destroying one another emotionally.  CLOSER is a wake-up pill for those who feel that Hollywood has no new ways to tell stories about relationships.  Nichols’ work tips the establishment and genre violently on its head.  His film is not about love, compassion, or understanding; rather, it’s about lies, deceit, and bitter and cynical power struggles between men and women where sex is used not for pleasure, but as some kind of unholy and malicious weapon.  In many ways, it’s a pessimistic, but incredibly brilliant film. 

Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber (who is adapting his own play) look at the foundations of the breakdown of the male/female relationship, and they do so with a certain level of perverse absorption that carries a sort of earnest lucidity.  The film is intricately and masterful plotted, often shifting very quickly in time to cover the expanse of the relationships in the film, and it takes great pleasures in defying the romantic genre and every turn.  The makers have no interest whatsoever in defining what love is in contemporary society, nor do they really care.  What they really are investigating is one simple principle: Do you really know your loved one that well and can you ever really trust them altogether?  This is not really new material for Nichols, who explored similar ideas with his WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF? and CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, but CLOSER may be even more personal in the way it dissects its characters and shows them, warts and all, at their mischievous and immoral worst.  Sex and utter betrayal has rarely been as fascinating in an American film as its portrayed in CLOSER. 

At its core, the film is simply about two sets of lovers and how their infidelities with one another tears them apart.  Jude Law stars as Dan, who writes newspaper obituaries for a London Newspaper.  As the film unfolds he meets Alice (played by Natalie Portman, in an Oscar worthy performance), who was a stripper from the US before she moved to London to end a bad relationship.  The opening “meet cute” between the two is almost surreal in its beauty and spontaneity, as Nichols slowly pans between the two, in slow motion, as they both wander through the London crowds.  They eventually lock eyes, which in turn makes its way to a form of non-verbal flirtation, and commences with Alice, distracted by Dan, being hit by a car.  She survives with minor wounds and a relationship between the two is forged.  Time, in the film, flashes by (Nichols is marvelous in his approach here, as he does not need moronic title cards saying “two years later” when he allows that information to come out naturally through everyday speech).  The effect is great, not to mention expeditious, because it allows him to cut to the chase and get to their relationship without explaining or focusing on their falling in love. 

Much as happened since they met.  Dan apparently has written a book on his relationship with Alice, an obvious muse for him.  As we seem Dan years later he is getting his picture taken for the book jacket by Anna (Julia Roberts).  The photo shoot makes a few not-so-subtle turns for the worse, and Dan immediately falls for Anna.  Anna, of course, tells the hapless Dan that they can’t get together because of Alice, but there still remains an unbending chemistry between the two.  More time eventually passes and Dan, who has been sleeping with Anna behind Alice’s back for a year, impersonates a woman named Anna on an internet sex chat line and sets up a date with Larry (played by the great Clive Owen, in a career defining role). 

Larry then goes to a nearby aquarium, the proposed meeting ground from the chat line talk with Dan, thinking he is about to meet the woman named Anna.  However, he eventually meets Dan’s Anna at the aquarium and, unfortunately, the two seem to hit it off, albeit awkwardly at first.  Both Larry and Anna start a romance and eventually get married.  Of course, time elapses (approximately four years), and without revealing too much more of the plot in too many specific terms, the next few years are terrible for all of the lovers.  Eventually, through a series of incidents, both of the men sleep with both women, sometimes as a mean spirited and spiteful slap in the face to the person they were originally involved with.  It's here where the foundations of the relationships get really out of whack. 

Yes, many of the characters do profess love for one another many times throughout the film, but there is an overwhelming sense of dead, hopelessness, and vileness to the their confessions, not to mention a genuine lack of inner convictions for what they want.  Often, one will confess love for the one they’re with and then later confess love for the one they’re not with.  All of this unfolds in a manner of ugliness, explicitness, and crudeness that other modern films about couples lack.  Ironically, CLOSER has no real sex scenes in it and, at least on a physical level, the film is not really violent.  However, the film is emotionally as violent as any I’ve seen and by the time you leave the theatre, you feel as mentally spent as the characters.  They use betrayal as weapons and sex is the outlet for their betrayal and as their lives painfully unfold, it becomes abundantly clear that all of the participants really have no idea who they or their loved ones really are. 

One of the freshest aspects of the film may be its dialogue, which takes the terms “brutal honesty” to a whole new catastrophic level.  These characters are not just honest with one another, but they reveal secrets and lies that would make the seediest of person seem tame in comparison.  Nichols and screenwriter Marber allow the dialogue to really shine in the film, and some people may be taken aback by the sheer sexual explicitness of their exchanges.  However, the conversations between the characters are not crude and lewd because of the intense vulgarity alone; rather, it’s the manner in which they say things, often in highly articulate and educated ways.  These are not stupid people with problems.  Dan, Larry, Anna, and Alice have intelligence in their verbal battles that most contemporary films fail to show.  They ask the most personal of sexual questions, but you always get that there is a point to their queries.  They don’t want the disgusting details to vindicate their emotions, they demand the details as a way of indirectly pushing each others’ buttons to the point of breaking one down completely.  The battlefield of this film’s love is with words, and Nichols and company pulls not one punch. 

CLOSER is also a major achievement from a performance perspective, and all of the players turn in work that may just garner Oscar attention for all of them.  I loved the way that the actors and Nichols allowed the characters to develop fully and reveal hidden depths that you were not aware of when you first meet them.  I thought that Clive Owen was a bit of a boring drag in this years disastrous KING ARTHUR, but here he demonstrates what a talent he is.  Larry starts off in the film as a fairly likeable chap who seems nice, if not a bit confused, but as the film unfolds he turns into a cold and vindictive SOB who is calculating to the point of sadism.  Owen is so fierce in his speech and has so much conviction in his manner of verbally attacking people head on.  There are two distinct times in the film where he has sex with two women not out of love at all, but only because it will cause Dan immeasurable pain.  Owen is fiendishly vile and morally corrupt in the role, and his sexually eccentricities and astute and cunning logic nearly steals the film. 

Law’s Danny, however, is not an innocent babe in the woods either.  Let’s not forget that he too is a cheater, maybe not the tenacious and mean spirited man that Larry is, but he nevertheless commits acts that have devastating consequences on others.  He’s a bad boy, to be sure, but just not as much as Larry.  Dan is just as much the bastard, but when he cheats he does so without really any firm understanding of the pain he causes and when it comes back to him, his reaction is complete stupefaction.  Anna, on the other hand, seems just as complacent with her proclivities, and is equally cold and malevolent, as one of the film’s most painful reveals shows us.  Anna may be Roberts’ best performance, and shows how good she can be when she can really sink her teeth into a juicy role.   

Outside, of Owen’s Larry, the film belongs to Portman’s Alice.  Is their a better young actress working today than Natalie Portman?   I thought she gave one of the best performances of the year in another great film – GARDEN STATE.  She is batting 1000 again with her work here, and she is destined for an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of her doomed character.  Some of the most memorable scenes in the film involve her.  One occurs early on during an art exhibit, where she meets Larry for the first time.  Later, when Larry finds out that she is working as a stripper at a club, Alice is revealed as the character with real control.  In that crucial scene, Larry may have tons of money and can use it to make Alice seemingly do whatever he wants, but you get the sense that it is Alice that is the one in control of the situation, and larry is the mouse to her cat.  There is such an extreme level of maturity, rawness, and bravery to her work in that scene, not to mention the rest of the film as a whole for Portman.  Yes, she eventually becomes a master manipulator as well, but she manages to, more than any other character in the film, inspire sympathy in her.  Maybe because she is the youngest and has the most innocence to lose.  No more is this apparent than in one moment where she reveals herself to the camera and reveals her thoughts– its one of the more stark, simple, and heartbreaking moments of 2004. 

CLOSER is a film that places many challenges upon the viewer.  It’s a film that is so enamored with its own ugliness and level of contempt it has with its characters.  I can’t say wholeheartedly that watching the film was a “pleasurable” experience.  However, despite the vileness of the film, it was always riveting to explore it and see the perversity and immorality unfold, and especially gratifying to see a contemporary American film be harsh with its subject matter and not shy away from it.  The film is so utterly unrelenting in how devastating it is to its characters, and it sort of feels like watching the same car accident repeat itself insanely.  CLOSER, truth be told, is ugly, harsh, abrasive, foul, and cruel in unspeakable ways, but it is also perceptive, thoughtful, engaging, intelligent, and endless fascinating.  At 73 years old and after five decades of films as a director, Nichols here is at the top of his form.

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