In Closer, four strangers drawn together by fate form into romantic pairs and then proceed to uncouple and re-couple, in the process ripping each other to shreds emotionally, using sexual infidelity as their blade of choice. It is, without question, a brutal, bloody thing to observe, this vitriolic foray into relationship mindgames, and it instantly calls to mind the 1966 acid wash Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
It should come as no surprise that Mike Nichols, the director of Woolf, was also drawn to Closer. Throughout his career, Nichols has exhibited avid interest in the abusive, often dysfunctional nature of carnal involvement, about the uncontrollable impact of desire and lust, as well as the conquest and redistribution of power within marital unbliss. Nichols’ journey has led him down pathways that are often a master-blend of comedy and drama (the exact amount varies from film to film), and his best examples remain Woolf, The Graduate, Heartburn and the dated yet still terrific Carnal Knowledge.
Closer is the most forthrightly abrasive, abusive, corrosive material Nichols has ever laid his hands on. But the film, adapted from the hit play by Patrick Marber, is all tell and no show. It resides in that artificial theatrical realm that works well on a stage with a live audience inches away, but not a big flickering screen, and it never makes the transitional leap required for success. The characters speak in a clever, caustic manner, but their words have a distancing effect. The movie keeps us at arm’s length, the experience it provides, remote and uninhabitable.
What’s left? Shock. The film is poised to sear your ears with its frank, obscenity-saturated verbiage. To hear Julia Roberts as Anna recant to her jilted husband Larry (Clive Owen) in triple-x-plicit detail the nature of her tryst with Dan (Jude Law) is meant to startle us. Another scene, in which a distraught, vengeful Larry confronts an “on the clock” Alice (Natalie Portman), the magenta-haired stripper who Dan left for Anna, desires to show off its raw, rippling primal urgency. But in both cases, the end results are dramatically impotent, drained free of realism and any genuine passion. It’s play-acting.
The narrative is so clearly structured for effect that it feels mechanized. Marber’s characters, meanwhile, are so deeply unlikable — selfish, heartless shells with rotting, shredded paper for filling — that it’s impossible to identify with any of them, let alone even hope for a happy ending filled with daisies and buttercups.
Of the four, Portman gives the most interesting performance — and while it’s nice to see her out of the Star Wars universe, her undertaking here is hardly a courageous one (apparently her “shocking” full-frontal nude scene was cut). Owen’s Larry charges through the film with an undeniable volcanic force, but he’s all eruption, a living, breathing special effect. Roberts plays against her normal jubilant type, and the result is a character that simply vanishes into the background. Poof! Perhaps that’s the point, but frankly I prefer my pretty woman with a side of laughter. Law suits the callow, insecure Dan well, but when it’s his turn to explode, the result is like a single pop from carbonated fizz.
Nichols and Marber employ some clever tricks, such as not denoting passage of time in the usual way but by clues implanted in the dialogue. The technique is meant to keep us simultaneously alert and disarmed. As the story progresses, each scene grandstands against itself until the entire film is spent.
Much of the action in Closer is comprised of lies. And to make sure you don’t miss the point, Marber and Nichols include a final revelation that is as cheap as it is head-scratchingly dumb. The point is made so often, it’s almost insulting. “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off,” Alice tells Larry, “but it’s better if you do.” Of the truth, Dan notes, “We’re addicted to it. Without it, we’re animals.” Sometime earlier, he wails “What’s so good about the truth? Try lying. It’s the currency of the world!”
On stage Marber’s words may have formed a kind of dazzling histrionic blaze, but on film they just come off sounding like a writer’s cramp. And that’s the naked truth.