Closer: Julia vs. Clive vs. Natalie vs. Jude

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Closer is a gift, an unassailable gift to movie critics. It’s a gift precisely because it’s so stupendously, outrageously, ludicrously bad, and therefore provides much merriment in the evisceration procedure.

British playwright Patrick Marber penned the screenplay, an adaptation of his 1997 stage work. I neither know nor care what Mr. Marber’s sexual orientation happens to be; he writes, however, the way a gay man imagines that straight men talk when talking about women. For example, in a scene where Clive Owen and Natalie Portman circle each other around a strip club’s private room, Ms. Portman’s character Alice is supposed to be sought after, fought over by men, though as Ms. Portman plays her (that is to say, as a bland pipsqueak) one cannot imagine why. “You have the face of an angel,” Mr. Owen informs her, before juxtaposing his observation with, “What does your cunt taste like?”

Another example—Mr. Owen to Julia Roberts, interrogating her about her affair with Jude Law: “What does he taste like?” Ms. Roberts: “Like you—only sweeter!”

And on and on and on, Closer goes: gay camp masquerading in straight drag. The sequence (long and boring) that comes closest to giving Mr. Marber’s dull show away occurs when Law and Owen interface via a chat room at the “London Sex Anon” site. The director, Mike Nichols, shoots their PC monitors in close-up: the better to see the adolescent filth they type back and forth. Law pretends to be a woman in order to titillate Owen. And Owen, who’s playing a medical doctor, falls for it. Couldn’t he figure out that a man was on the opposite side? Seemed obvious to me: the “sexually frank” text messages don’t read like what a woman, even a sluttish trollop, would write. The voice reads plainly of a man’s debased fantasy of what a woman might or should say to entice him.

Marber has no ear for how people actually speak. The actors recite dialogue as overblown as anything uttered on a made-for-TV potboiler. Portman to Law: “Why won’t you let me love you?” Owen to Law: “I fucked her to fuck you up. A good fight is never clean.” Law to Portman: “I’m addicted to the truth—without it, we’re animals.” Owen to Roberts: “Why did you marry me? We’re happy, aren’t we?”

There’s a lot of talk about sex throughout Closer, yet the movie isn’t remotely erotic. An inescapable aura of trying too hard permeates nearly each frame. It’s a major studio, end-of-the-year, “prestige” release—someone’s idea of a “serious” movie. And ohhh, is it serious! The drama (using the term loosely) consists of endless rounds of one-upmanship among the four characters. The women are cold, the men are pigs, everyone sleeps around. Nichols and Marber never depict much of anything, though; Nichols seems allergic to montage, preferring instead to heft chunks of exposition between talking heads in profile—which would matter less if any of these bed-hopping, oversexed ciphers had something of consequence to say. Like clockwork, they spring “surprises” on one another that are meant to render savage blows to their psyches and our emotions. Yet Closer is gutless, rather than heartless. These constant ante-upping revelations have no force, no punch, no power whatsoever.

And why do you think that would be so? Because never for an instant do the actors convince us that these urban caricatures genuinely feel love or even attraction. And because the scenarist/playwright is a self-deluded hack and a charlatan who believes that if you place four characters on a stage (or in a film) saying “fuck” and incessantly betraying their sex partners—then voila! You have something trendily shocking and “dark, edgy”—you know, baby, something finger-snapping, something “now.” But all Closer amounts to is schlock.

closer6Smiling all the way to the bank? Julia with director Mike Nichols in the fetid bomb Closer (Columbia Pictures)

Except—to an extent—for Clive Owen, the actors are failures right and left across the spectrum. Jude Law, fresh from the ignominious Alfie remake, plays his role as engagingly nebbishy at first: his hair a chestnut brown, he sports tight-lipped smiles and boyish, preppy clothes. Soon enough, he’s back to the blond-highlighted, devil-may-care, rakish persona I’ve come to dread—the same old heartbreaker who’s deeply insecure, a role Law may be condemned to play until or even after his so-called beauty fades.

Then there’s Julia Roberts. In fluff, such as Mona Lisa Smile, Roberts’ reticence can seem a virtue; one might even mistake it for acting. Here, when she underplays, it’s because she doesn’t know what else to do. She tells herself that the nothingness she projects conveys depth; as an actor, she has little within to draw upon. Where a creative artist should be, stands only a vacuum. At no time does this become more noticeable than in her break-up joust with Owen. It isn’t a fair match. The beefy Owen, who looks a bit of a seedy rotter in this role, gives the scene everything he’s got, which is plenty: seething, fiery jolts. And poor Roberts, resembling by various turns a skeleton or an albino mouse, just can’t compete.

Inadequate though she may be, Roberts manages to play off Owen a tad; she’s at home with the light, comedic banter of their first meeting, via mistaken identity, at the London Aquarium. (Nichols has shot Closer so statically that this sequence alone sustains visual interest: the actors sit as black silhouettes in front of enormous glass tanks, electric blue with water and fish.)

In the pivotal role of the shallow Alice, Natalie Portman’s banality cannot be overstated. She’s a horrible actress. Her voice has no range: her hairstyle, makeup, and mode of dress change from scene to scene, yet she sounds always like a kid. No matter how glamorized she’s made to look—such as the Louise Brooks coiffure and spangled strap earrings she wears to the opening of a photography exhibit—the physically small Portman continues to seem around 14 years of age. Her non-performance in Closer resembles her gratingly vapid work in Garden State to the point of homage: you perceive that it’s the only number in her repertoire, and it’s less than nothing. In the strip club sequence, it isn’t just Alice who makes a fool of the doctor: Portman, by giving so little while Clive Owen acts up a storm, made me wonder why Owen was knocking himself out over this empty soufflé. His choices as an actor might have worked had he an equal on the screen. But Portman has no fire. She’s neither beautiful nor pretty; it doesn’t make sense that men would obsessively desire Alice, a pouty tart given to bouts of crocodile tears and nihilistic pseudo-cleverness.

Nichols directs the actors stiffly and unnaturally: I could almost see his chalk-dust outline blocking the scenes. Closer’s publicity reminds us that Nichols once made Carnal Knowledge and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the implication being that Closer completes an unofficial trilogy of back-stabbing, foul-mouthed neurotics on parade. Flawed as those earlier films are, they remain light years ahead of Closer, a commercial hack job posing as art. The release of Closer also invites us to ask: what has Mike Nichols ever really accomplished as a filmmaker? He’s always been more of a commodity or, worse yet, a “brand” rather than an idiosyncratic stylist. There were the haunting marriages of sight and sound throughout Carnal Knowledge, perhaps never more so than in the unpopulated tracking shots of a Manhattan apartment, as the disembodied voices of Sinatra and a studio chorus crooned the melancholy “Dream (When You’re Feeling Blue)”; there was the incisive acting from Adrian Lester and Kathy Bates in Primary Colors; and I thought Heartburn was a near perfect light comedy of social mores. Mostly though, there is the dreck, the tasteful, discreet, middle-brow dreck for which Nichols has been highly praised, from The Graduate on through to such monstrosities as Working Girl and Postcards from the Edge: the muddled movies about the middle of the road, middle-class escapees or assimilationists. At least Closer won’t be taken for one of those. – NPT

November 24, 2004

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