'Closer' film review: The perfect dysfunctional date movie
Mike Nichols' first feature film, an adaptation of Edward Albee's acclaimed play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is a harrowing dissection of two married couples whose inner demons are let loose during a night of game playing, drinking, and screaming. That was back in 1966. Fast forward to 2004 and to another Mike Nichols film adaptation of an acclaimed play, Patrick Marber's Closer, another look at two dysfunctional heterosexual couples, this time in the age of cyberspace and AIDS.
Apart from the fact that the story's time frame has been stretched from one night to a couple of years, on the surface not much has changed since the mid-'60s: the new quartet also dwells in a social bubble in which they bicker, yell profanities, pretend to be someone else, and are utterly vicious to one another.
On a deeper level, however, everything has changed. While Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf – with the assistance of four actors (Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal) in top form – lays bare the entrails of its characters, Closer barely scratches the surface of its one-dimensional, wholly artificial protagonists, played with varying degrees of effectiveness by the film's four leads.
Edward Albee vs. Patrick Marber
The chief difference between these two Mike Nichols efforts lies in the source material. While Albee's words pierce the carotid, Marber's scratch an elbow and break a couple of fingernails. The situations depicted in Closer may seem uncompromisingly direct, but without some kind of psychological context, all that lying, cheating, and nonstop partner switching come across as mere titillation.
For instance, London denizen Anna (Julia Roberts) dumps her husband Larry (Clive Owen) for Dan (Jude Law) without Marber ever bothering to let us know why Anna and Larry – who seem to be polar opposites – got married in the first place, or what exactly attracted Anna to Dan. Also, we never get to see their affair behind Larry's back, or the disintegration of Anna's marriage. Why, then, should anyone care when things become entangled later on?
Not helping matters is Dan's off-and-on girlfriend, Alice (Natalie Portman), who aimlessly bounces from here to there and then back to here again, only to make a momentous decision at the end of the film that is as unexpected as it is trite; it comes out of nowhere – and, unlike in the play, it goes nowhere. So, why bother?
Sex, lies and expletives
Perhaps as a means of taking away our attention from the vapidity of it all, Patrick Marber, who also penned the Closer screenplay, comes up with a full array of sexually explicit lines that are bandied about during heated arguments, e.g., “Do you enjoy sucking him off? Yes! You like his cock? I love it!”
Now, never-ending yelling about the joys of extra-marital fucking may (or may not) shock the pious, but it will probably leave most filmgoers feeling merely impatient. For no matter how many times the four characters resort to sex talk – and that is all the sex they have on screen – nothing dissipates the overall artificiality of the film's dialogue and situations.
In the confines of the stage, such lack of realism may be permitted or even strived for, but in the naturalistic settings of Mike Nichols' London it just looks silly. An unnecessary plot twist at the end adds nothing to our understanding of what went on earlier. (No, it doesn't involve Dan and Larry hooking up for life, although that would have explained a lot about their behavior toward women.)
Julia Roberts shines despite poorly delineated character
Despite Closer's poorly delineated characters, actors' director Mike Nichols elicits at least a modicum of substance from three of the four leads – Natalie Portman's stilted Alice being the sole exception.
Stripped of every artifice that has hampered several of her previous performances, a mature Julia Roberts shines as Anna, bringing a much needed touch of warmth to a role that in a less capable actress' hands would have become a pathetic nonentity. In fact, Roberts is the only performer who manages to fully rise above the script's shortcomings.
Jude Law returns as Alfie
Clive Owen, who played Dan in the original stage version, displays a powerful, magnetic screen presence that would have made even Clark Gable shudder, but this talented actor is ultimately incapable of transforming stagy lines into real-life talk.
Jude Law, for his part, has a couple of good dramatic moments when he realizes that others can play his game as well as he does, but his attempts to make his immature loverboy charming fall flat, for Dan is nothing more than Alfie's obnoxious twin brother – something that makes Alice's and, particularly, Anna's infatuation with him seem patently absurd.
'Closer' keeps viewers at a distance
In the final analysis, Closer fails for the same reason that its truth-impaired characters fail to connect with one another: the film keeps us at a distance from its core, focusing instead on melodramatic tricks and “shocking” banalities.
Those looking for a truly fearless look at dysfunctional human relationships may want to skip this Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? redux and check out the real thing.
Dir.: Mike Nichols.
Scr.: Patrick Marber.
From Marber's 1997 play.
Cast: Julia Roberts. Jude Law. Clive Owen. Natalie Portman. Nick Hobbs. Colin Stinton.
'Closer': Oscar Movies
Mike Nichols' Closer earned two Academy Award nominations.
- Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby.
- Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Cate Blanchett for The Aviator.
Closer film cast info via the IMDb.
Jude Law and Julia Roberts Closer film images: Columbia Pictures.