Closer – A Bit Distant

By Scott Martin

Closer, USA / UK, 2004

Directed by Mike Nichols

Closer is a 2004 romantic drama film written by Patrick Marber, based on his award-winning 1997 play of the same name.Mike Nichols is a hard director to stomach sometimes. He has a way of making characters crawl under your skin, when that’s the very last place you want them. Such is the case, anyway, with the four characters in Closer, Dan (Jude Law), Alice (Natalie Portman), Anna (Julia Roberts), and Larry (Clive Owen). This is a film that assumes an old truth: look at a painting from far away, it’s perfect; look at it point blank, and you’ll see all the cracks and imperfections that destroy its image. Closer, like the characters who inhabit that truth, is one of those paintings, or maybe that holds true for photographs as well. The movie itself acts almost as a montage of snapshots and freeze-frames in these characters’ intersecting lives. Of course, if every picture is worth a thousand words, you know you’re in for a verbose screenplay. Thankfully, Patrick Marber adapts his own play for the film, which keeps the words intact.

The way Marber adapts his words, with cuts in time that take a bit of getting used to, is impressive. He knows the difference between the stage and the screen, but he also knows that the screen holds the biggest stage of all. Quieter moments are more accepted here than they are on stage, I’ve found. Marber has created a world full of quiet moments (and a handful of very loud ones) that rests comfortably between reality and fable, injecting us into the lives of these four characters. Over the course of several years, the four become deeply involved, being lobbed back and forth between themselves as if they were tennis balls, but it’s the breakdown that makes it worth viewing. It’s an excellent screenplay, even if Nichols’ handling of it is a bit absent at times.

The film beings with Dan locking eyes with a needle in a haystack named Alice. Of course, who wouldn’t lock eyes with Natalie Portman? They meet under the whisper of Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter” (of course, if those two knew the lyrics, they’d know better than to have ever spoken in the first place, but there you are). She’s distracted by his intense brown eyes, and is hit by a taxi cab. Being almost fully responsible, Dan takes Alice to the emergency room, and their relationship beings as quickly as she was hit. We see Dan years later, in one of those tricky time-cuts after he’s written a novel about his relationship with Alice, getting his picture taken by Anna. Dan wants her immediately, and, being Dan, he gets her, but he suffers from what economists refer to as Dutch Disease, and he isn’t pleased with what he has. It isn’t enough.

Dan poses as Anna on a sex-chat site, talking to an embarrassing example of a man, Larry, on the other end. They engage in cyber sex, with Larry of course not knowing that cyber-Anna is real-life Dan, and agree to meet at a local aquarium. Accidentally, and because the story requires it (a deus ex machina sort of cheat), Larry meets the real Anna at the aquarium. Through a series of events designed to seem like real life, Larry and Anna sleep together and so begins the aimless torture the characters endure, sleeping with each other’s boyfriends and girlfriends as if they were animals. Of course, as Dan points out “without truth, we’re animals.” He nailed it, like a self-fulfilling prophet.

Dan is an obviously sad obituary writer with a failed novel hanging on his back. When I watched Law’s performance for the first time years ago, I really hated it. I thought he was out of place and all sorts of wrong for the character. He wasn’t strong enough, I thought, to pull off what Dan was supposed to be, but, looking at it now, I realize he nailed it. Every bit. Maybe it was because I was looking at Dan wrong, but I get it now; every inch of him is pathetic. There’s not one strong bone in his body; that’s why he is the way he is. He cheats on his girlfriends, he lies to them, and expects to not be hurt in return. He’s a coward and a lunatic, and Law plays him with such a humorous sadness, it’s almost off-putting. He creeps under your skin and announces Dan’s flaws very loudly. He isn’t the best of the cast, but he’s damn good.

Clive Owen, on the other hand, oh my god! I’d forgotten just how impressive his performance is; he’s a beast, absolutely. Addicted to sex and to emotional pain, he eases himself into Larry so much so you forget you’re watching an actor. His internal anger is displayed with brutal honesty as his outer polish gets chipped away. Larry is deeply disturbed, but undeniably human. It’s a testament to Owen’s performance how much I wound up hating the character, having met so many people like him in real life.

Julia Roberts, as Anna, is outstanding. It’s a luminous performance stuck in between extremely gloomy settings and dialogue, and she shines incredibly bright; brighter, far brighter, than Natalie Portman as Alice. I used to love her performance, but now I realize it’s a complete mess; she’s out of her league and in way over her head. She had everything the character needed to work, but missed it all by a mile, and it’s depressing to watch. She takes me right out of the movie now.

All in all, its score raises a mere point from when I watched it last, partly because of the screenplay and now being able to see genuine ability in Law’s performance, but the awkward editing and Portman’s performance keep it from going any higher, and Nichols’ direction seems so absent, it’s hard to even comment on it. All I can say is that he’s done much, much better work.

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