Reviewed by Brian Ludovico (April 11, 2005)
Mike Nicholsí big screen version of the critically acclaimed play by Patrick Marber, Closer follows the lives of four people thrown together by chance over a period of four years. The story begins with obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) who encounters a young lady named Alice (Natalie Portman) when she gets hit by a cab on the streets of London. In his kindness, Dan makes sure Alice gets to a hospital and sits with her in the emergency room. Fascinated by her beauty and her easy going friendliness, Dan strikes up a conversation that lasts for the better part of the morning. He tells her of his ambitions to write a novel, while she shares that sheís a former stripper whoís just moved to London from New York.
The next time we see them, itís a year later. Theyíre living together, and with Alice as his muse, Danís dreams of writing a novel have finally become reality. Heís immortalized her as the main character in his novel, The Aquarium. Now we find him at a photographerís studio, being shot for the jacket of his book. Danís immediately and irrationally attracted to the photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts).
Quickly he begins to flirt aggressively with her, only to be rebuffed when she finds out heís involved with someone else. Some time later, as a bit of revenge, Dan pretends to be Anna in an explicit chat room, and he sets up a meeting with stranger at her favorite spot with the promise of sex. That stranger is Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist with an affinity for cyber sex. As fate would have it, even after the initial embarrassment, the two of them hit it off and become involved romantically.
Four months later, we find the four characters in one place for the only time in the film, at Annaís portraiture exhibition. Dan and Alice show up under the auspices of Alice being in one of Annaís best pictures. Danís obviously there to run into Anna. While he spends a few minutes goading Anna, and Anna tells him about Larry, Larry is busy flirting with lovely Alice. Dan ends up putting Alice in a cab to go home and secretly steals back into the show. He confronts Anna and accuses her of being in love with him, not with Larry, and Anna denies it. The scene ends innocently enough with Dan leaving.
A year later, we find out quickly that Larry and Anna have gotten married, but all is not well in paradise. In perhaps the best scene in the film, Anna tells Larry the truth: she and Dan have been having an affair since before their marriage. In fact, the affair basically started the night of the exhibition. Larry explodes, understandably bullying Anna into more hurtful confessions and finally leaving. Concurrently, Dan is telling Alice the same story. Alice reacts differently than Larry, but the effect is the same: she disappears into the London night, determined never to see Dan again.
Over the next year, the four of them will spend an unhealthy amount of time obsessing about the infidelities of their partners and using one another to exact revenge. The emotional demolition they wreak upon one another is sad for all involved, and its effects are evident. These people get so emotionally tossed and turned that they all alternate between trying to emotionally assassinate each other and trying to recreate the emotional ties they originally had. In the end, only one has the guts it takes to cut loose of the situation entirely.
Closer is without a doubt the most singularly performance-driven film of the last year, maybe the last five years. The film turns entirely on the interaction of the filmís only four characters, their twisted motivations and damaged emotions, and the actorsí performances are therefore even more important than usual.
The females are outstanding. Julia Roberts gives a more emotionally textured and physically nuanced performance than her Oscar-winning turn in Erin Brockovich. I normally donít like Roberts, but the cool-headed confrontations with her co-stars really put Closer head and shoulders above her usual puff films. Portmanís performance is the most gutsy and demanding of her increasingly impressive young career. This is so far from her bored, wooden turns in the Star Wars prequel trilogy that one might question if itís the same girl. She plays the hard but brittle outer shell absolutely perfectly.
As great as the female leads are, the male leads are even more impressive. Jude Lawís Dan is emotionally fragile and uneven, immature and full of self pity thanks to his inability to commit to Alice. Itís difficult to place this performance in comparison to Lawís other efforts, mainly because heís done quality work in everything Iíve seen him in for the last five years. Law is on a mid-Eighties DeNiro-esque run right now.
Impossibly, though, this isnít the best performance in the movie. That honor goes to the stunning turn from Oscar-nominated Clive Owen. The man who was so dull and charisma-free in the junky blockbuster King Arthur is undeniably magnetic and captivating as Larry. Owen plays him with a wheel of emotion, each scene with him better than the last, save for the scene where Anna tells him the truth. I canít say enough about how great the performance in this scene was, but itís basically what got him the nomination.
Closer is a unique movie in todayís market, and in some ways, that uniqueness works against the film. For example, this film makes no attempt to find a hero or a villain in its cast. Instead, it opts simply to observe these people, each with a ton of emotional baggage, without judging them, and many American audiences will see this as lazy and indifferent. The ending of the film is another of the European-type of qualities, lacking traditional closure, instead just leaving the characters, like we were just passing through their lives.
Another unique quality is that this film is a story thatís based largely in sexual interaction, yet there isnít a single frame of explicit sex between characters. Iím surprised how well it works, actually, and the film still maintains a sexy, erotic feel. The filmís real weakness, though, is that in its European feel, it lacks the emotional punch for the characters that we got from a movie like Lost in Translation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
That lack of closure and other European qualities donít make Closer a bad movie by any means. I really enjoyed the filmís structure and very theatrical feel, and the performances alone are worth the price of admission. If youíre tired of the usual relationship tripe, Closer is certainly worth a shot.