Mix And Mismatch

'Closer,' a hollow tale of beautiful people and ugly behavior, leaves the viewer feeling cheated.


December 03, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

How are you supposed to pronounce the title?" is the most intriguing question raised by director Mike Nichols' Closer. Does it refer to looking closer at your lover or closing a deal? I hope the British playwright-screenwriter Patrick Marber primarily intends the second meaning. For romance is a cutthroat transaction in this tale of bed-hopping betrayal among a London-based quartet of alluring, upsetting men and women.

Last year's holiday offering about Brits shifting in and out of relationships was Love, Actually. This movie is as proudly bitter as that was proudly sappy. Closer is about lust, actually - when it isn't about crippling male pride and paranoia pitted against equally shallow and less predictable female sensibilities.

The only faithful thing about Nichols' movie is its reverence for Marber's gimmicky play about romantic aspirations and sex among the young semi-attached set. As the four principals swing partners and change hands, Nichols and Marber restrict the narrative to high and low points. The filmmakers jump from twin peaks to twin valleys and then land on varying plateaus as the characters connect, act badly, break up and never quite come clean. The rationale for leaping from one climax to the next is that all men and women remember courtship and splitting up better than they do living together day by day.

But the effect is hollow. Marber's people don't pour lifetimes of experience into their come-ons, tantrums and emotional blackmail. With adjustments for age and class, they act out situations that are meant to be "universal" or "elemental." This movie's idea of profundity is to have a male character bellow about the difficulty of finding "intimacy" while a female character does a nude show for him in a private room at a sleaze club.

At the start, Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer with literary ambitions, has a girlfriend, but that doesn't stop him from sparking with an American ex-stripper who calls herself Alice (Natalie Portman). By the time we make the next vault in the narrative, Dan and Alice have shacked up and he has "borrowed" her life for his first novel. Dan looks every bit the up-and-coming man of letters - especially through the lens of chic photographer Anna (Julia Roberts), who shoots him for his book jacket and is separated from her husband.

When Anna makes the mistake of confessing that she stayed up until 4 a.m. to read his manuscript, Dan senses an opening and cajoles her into a kiss - even though he tells her that Alice is "unleaveable." Add a charismatic dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen) and you've got the ingredients for a painfully hip square dance that starts when Dan tricks Larry and Anna into a "cute meet" at the London Aquarium, not realizing that he's playing Cupid.

The flossy explanation for their fickleness is that they can't get enough of "falling in love." But the film's Chinese-checkers approach to chronology makes it impossible to tell whether half of them have ever tried to "stay in love."

Closer is full of conversations that are supposed to be cutting, audacious and "true." In fact, the dialogue chokes on its own vicious self-consciousness and the audience wilts, waiting for a laugh. There are a few funny riffs, such as Dan's explaining the euphemisms used by obit writers: "`He valued his privacy' ... gay. `He enjoyed his privacy ... raging queen.'"

But most of the talk is tiresomely frank. Dan and Larry insist on knowing in detail what Anna has done with each of them. Does this verbal directness reveal anything fresh about sexual manners and mores?

Even the characters are stereotypes: the writer who's gentler and more quietly malicious than the robust, expressive dermatologist; the photographer whose exquisite sensibility proves more seductive to the men than the openhearted, free-spirited stripper.

The few seconds that seem genuine are timeless cries from the heart. Alice berates Dan not for falling in love with Anna but for failing to resist: "There's always a moment: I can do this, I can give in to that, or I can resist it." That speech sets off reverberations, unlike the theatrical set piece (reportedly a sensation on stage) of Dan's impersonating Anna as a sex fiend in an online chat room and luring Larry to the aquarium.

The rest of the movie feels like updated hand-me-downs, often from better sources. To judge how little this film really conveys about sex and love and feeling, contrast the scene of Roberts' Anna taking a picture of Portman's Alice with that of Lena Olin's Sabina and Juliette Binoche's Tereza photographing each other in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What we get in Closer is freeze-dried pathos; what we get in The Unbearable Lightness is one man's two mistresses seeing what he sees in each of them and bonding, improbably but beautifully.

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