Don't be fooled by the ambiguity implied in the title. "Closer" could not be further from
the truth. The latest work from Mike Nichols, director of "The Graduate," "Silkwood," and
"Working Girl," dissects modern romance with a plastic spoon. This is no heartwarming love
fest, mind you. Rather, it's a cold, harsh look at relationships gone sour, from the chance
encounters to the initial attractions and ultimately the bitter betrayals. Adapted from
Patrick Marber's award winning stage play, the story follows four strangers drawn together
by circumstance but pushed apart by their own obsessions. The sexual jealousy, the casual
lies, the ego fueled competition, and the unforgiving fall out. All of the characters
subject and are subjected to this new kind of relationship, a relationship that fails to
bring them any closer to true love.
Dan writes obituaries for a living, but has aspirations of becoming a novelist. On
a bustling, routine day in the heart of London, Dan makes eye contact with the
beautiful, flamboyant Alice. But before they come to pass, Alice steps off the curb
and is accidentally knocked down by a taxicab. Of course, Dan rescues her, takes
her to the hospital, and falls in love. Likewise, Alice gives herself freely to
Dan, even allowing Dan to use her life story for inspiration for a book. But after
a year, Dan becomes tired of her dependency on him and seeks affection elsewhere.
And that affection comes from Anna, a portrait photographer with more maturity and
independence than Alice. Yet while Anna is open about her attraction to Dan, she
declines his advances in lieu of his current relationship. This frustrates Dan and
provokes him to set her up with a retaliatory blind date he meets over the internet.
The blind date is Larry, a dermatologist seeking a sexual fling. But in an odd twist of fate,
the two hit it off romantically and eventually marry. Later, at a photo exhibition, the four
connect and a variety of feelings and emotions are expressed. Does Anna truly love Larry? Does
Dan still love Alice? Behind the covers, Anna secretly has an affair with Dan, who is more
gentle and romantic than Larry. But even their relationship becomes strained as Anna refuses
to leave Larry for him. After returning home from a business trip, Larry eventually discovers
his wife's infidelity. And the pain and torment are almost too much for him to bear. Resolving
never to get hurt again, he goes on a mission - to defend himself by destroying the lives of
those around him.
Academy Award winning director Mike Nichols has made a successful career out of transitioning
stage to film and television; in particular, "Angels in America," "Who's Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?" and "Wit." And he's been triumphant in dealing with complex issues involving sex and
relationships with films like "The Graduate," "Postcards from the Edge," and "The Birdcage."
In dealing with such topics, Nichols refrains from judgment and moral explanation. As in
"Closer," four characters are equally mischievous and deceitful, where every scene involves
someone opening up and another closing up. The ethics and values are left for the audience to
decide. There's Anna, the photographer, who like a thief, steals Dan away from Alice; Dan, the
aspiring novelist, who betrays Alice's trust in pursuit of Anna; Dr. Larry, who cheats on Anna
to get back at her and Dan; and Alice, who deceives Dan and Larry by lying about her true
identity. It's truly, a bizarre love triangle, times four.
As sophisticated and savvy as a David Mamet play, Patrick Marber's dialogue is to
die for. Adapting his own theatrics to the big screen, Marber accentuates scene
after scene with words that can only be described as bitter, cutthroat, sarcastic,
and witty all rolled into one. Oftentimes, it's barbaric and dehumanizing and other
times, it gives the characters a heightened level of finesse or depth. Through verbal
foreplay, each pursues and attacks in an attempt to obtain the affections of the one they
love or to disarm the one that threatens to take their love away. Ironically, in spite of
all the witty repartee, the characters fall in love only to fall out of love.
"Closer" is heavily reliant upon the highly talented quartet of actors and actresses. Distancing herself
from the prototypical feel good roles demonstrated in films like "Pretty Woman" and "Steel Magnolias,"
Julia Roberts takes a shocking new direction with Anna - a character that is weak, fallible, and
dishonest. By going against the stereotype, her character betrays audiences, much like she does to the
men in the film. And her role isn't the only surprise. Natalie Portman plays the stripper, Alice, a
character that earns our sympathy in much the same way as Sam did in "Garden State," only to see a more
mature, edgy woman emerge, one who uses seduction to hide a darker truth. And lastly, there's Jude Law
and Clive Owen - one scrawny, one beefy, one tender, one rough. But both are on the top of their game,
intellectual fiends clawing at the other for male supremacy.
Yet, while the film features astonishing performances from its cast, there is a sense that none of them
carries an ounce of goodness or will ever achieve salvation. Do they comprehend the pain they are
inflicting? Do they care about anyone other than themselves? Do they know what love is or what it means
to be in love? As the film toggles between characters and exposes their flaws, the audiences' ability to
empathize deteriorates. In the end, we too become cynical and uncaring, content that each character gets
what they deserve. And because the film skips through large chunks of time on a whim and retains a
play-like structure, the closeness that is achieved or broken apart feels somewhat diluted.
I would be remiss, of course, if I did not mention the haunting love song, "The Blower's
Daughter," that opens and closes the film. Written and performed by Irish singer/songwriter
Damien Rice, the song captures the infatuation, the yearning, and the disappointment of love
and betrayal. Sings Rice, "And so it is, just like you said it should be?we'll both forget
the breeze, most of the time." And yet, "I can't take my mind off you?I can't take my eyes
off you." No song this year has captured the essence or mood of an entire film quite like
this one. Beautiful, poignant, and morose, it will leave lasting ripples all the way to
"Closer" is an extremely well written, well acted ensemble piece that delves into the dark
side of modern relationships, relationships that are driven by the ill effects of love. There
are no happy endings here because the characters react in malicious and dishonest ways, depending on
the pressure they're under and how they've been wronged. Asks Alice, "Where is this 'love'? I can't
see it, I can't touch it, I can't feel it?I can't do anything with your easy words." That's because
love is unconditional. Without it, relationships are reduced to gamesmanship. And as Mike Nichols so
aptly demonstrates, to the losers go the spoils.