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Intimate Strangers: Natalie Portman tries out a new dye job on Clive Owen.


Get as far away as you can from 'Closer'

By Richard von Busack

MAYBE IT'S TRUE that the liberal elite ought to go to church; evidently they long for preachers who'd give them a good verbal flogging. Since they don't go, what we have instead is bludgeoning popular plays like Closer. Some deep-seated need of verbal punishment made Patrick Marber's play an international theatrical success.

In Mike Nichols' viciously claustrophobic film version, the battling quartet consists of Clive Owen, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts. The four are lovers in an aquatic and frigid London, seen over the course of several years. Dan (Law) is an obituary writer who wants to be a novelist. He stumbles into inspiration, literally; he crosses paths with a drifting American stripper called Alice, played by Portman. Essentially, he scrapes her off the pavement. She's been hit by a car. Stupid Yank, she didn't know which way the traffic ran in London.

A year passes; now Dan lives with Alice and has finished his book and is posing for the jacket photo. At almost first sight, he falls in love with the photographer—a daunting, recently divorced ex-New Yorker named Anna (Roberts). She kisses him, but brushes him off. Dan avenges himself by using the Internet to sic a lecherous stranger on Anna.

Larry (Owen) is a gruff dermatologist who has a pornographically direct manner with women. He likes to order them around. Yet Dan's vicious prank backfires, and Larry and Anna hook up. From this point on, the couples betray each other, trying to hook up with the other's partners.

All four are, in fine, parasites. Dialogue confirms their parasitic qualities. Anna steals images; Dan steals other people's lives for his books and his obituaries. Alice is a professional manipulator of sexual instincts, and I guess that Larry could stand accused of preying on people's illnesses, as he's a doctor.

Closer proposes that there's ugly truth lurking under the sentiments we use to disguise our need for comfort and sex. As in Neil LaBute's films, playwright Patrick Marber strips the pleasure principle from human conduct. And since we're always meant to feel that taking pleasure in cinema is, in itself, essentially immature, this genre of belaboring play or movie is automatically considered mature.

The huge-name actors and actresses onscreen here talk a lot about orgasms, but they don't seem to like them much. The strip-club sequence where Alice bares most of her body is about cold control, not sex. She's gripping her power, while harvesting money from a client—and yet there's nothing in it for the man. "What do I have to do to get a little intimacy around here," Larry shouts. Don't men go to sex shows to get away from intimacy?

A Martian watching Closer (or In the Company of Men or Your Friends & Neighbors) would conclude that human reproduction is a distasteful duty. The consolation for humans who have to perform it is that we can use sex to mark our status. Pity or revenge are the two main reasons to have sex. Once someone of higher social status has marked the female territory, she's no longer available as a mate for lesser men. Men are brutes who really fulfill themselves when they hit a woman.

Our one hope is that a few brave souls are brutally honest. Seeking truth is what separates us from animals: that's one deep thought in the play. So is Larry's big line: "The heart is a fist wrapped in blood!" (Too bad for his patients, if he thinks that.)

Animals aren't liars. The heart isn't a fist any more than the hand is a foot, and anyway there's no fist so tight that doesn't unfold into an open hand sometime. Nichols scores this thuggish prestige movie with Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti—farcical music for an anti-farce. The movie is like a comedy someone dipped in a solvent. Like Nichols, Marber is an ex-comedian. Both seem to have had the idea that the antagonism inherent in comedy would be better off bare and exposed. Where is the wit here? The best laugh in Closer is a joke about a German businessman snoring like a Messerschmitt, which is like some outtake gag from one of Billy Wilder's terrible late 1960s movies.

I'm sure actors love playing Closer, since it gives them a chance to spit obscenities at each other, all in the service of spiritual cleansing. But Marber's reduction of all human motives to a power struggle is like Marxism with the light of hope in it extinguished. There's a promise of pleasure in seeing Law's pretty amoral face, in Portman's sweet youth and in Owen's tangy dryness. These actors pull you through. Ultimately, though, what they pull you through for is for further punishment. Watching Closer is like getting a whipping for something you didn't do.

Closer (R; 100 min.), directed by Mike Nichols, written by Patrick Marber and based on his play, photographed by Stephen Goldblatt and starring Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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