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"Dissects modern romance with a plastic spoon."
"As sophisticated and savvy as a David Mamet play, Patrick Marber's dialogue is to die for."
"Beautiful, poignant, and morose, it will leave lasting ripples all the way to February."
Closer  

Cast

Anna: Julia Roberts
Dan: Jude Law
Alice: Natalie Portman
Larry: Clive Owen
Review December 2004

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 February.

"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.



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