- Closer (2004) movie review: Julia Roberts is the one cast member delivering a well-rounded characterization in Mike Nichols and Patrick Marber’s superficial attempt to recreate the dysfunctional universe of heterosexual relationships previously seen – in more profound fashion – in Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
- Closer received two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Natalie Portman) and Supporting Actor (Clive Owen).
Closer movie review: Mike Nichols’ latest take on dysfunctional heterosexuals is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Mike Nichols’ first feature, a big-screen transfer of Edward Albee’s acclaimed Broadway 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 drinking, game playing, and out-of-control yelling. That was back in 1966. Fast forward to 2004 and to another Mike Nichols-directed big-screen transfer of an acclaimed play, Patrick Marber’s Closer, also about two dysfunctional heterosexual couples, but 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 and that the early 21st-century drama takes place in England, on the surface not much has changed in the last four decades: The new quartet of neurotic heterosexual English speakers 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.
With the assistance of four actors in top form – Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sandy Dennis, George Segal – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lays bare the entrails of its characters. Closer, on the other hand, barely scratches the surface of its one-dimensional protagonists, played with varying degrees of effectiveness by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen, and Natalie Portman.
Edward Albee vs. Patrick Marber
The chief difference between these two Mike Nichols efforts lies in the base material. While Edward Albee’s words (adapted by Ernest Lehman for the big screen) pierce the carotid, Patrick Marber’s scratch an elbow and break a couple of fingernails.
The situations depicted in Closer may seem uncompromisingly direct, but without some sort of psychological context, all that lying, cheating, and nonstop partner switching comes across as mere titillation.
For instance, American-born, London-based photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) dumps her dermatologist husband Larry (Clive Owen) for untrustworthy obituary writer 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 someone as unappealing as Dan.
Besides, we never get to see the adulterous affair behind Larry’s back or the disintegration of his marriage. Why, then, should anyone care when things become entangled later on?
Not helping matters is Dan’s off-and-on girlfriend, the mysterious American 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 movie 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 & expletives
Perhaps as a means of taking away our attention from the vapidity of it all, Marber 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 Closer’s four characters resort to sex talk – and that is all the sex they have on screen – nothing dissipates the overall artificiality of the 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 before the final credits feels like a gratuitous head-scratcher, adding nothing to our understanding of what went on earlier. (No, it doesn’t involve Dan and Larry hooking up for life, though that would have explained a lot about their behavior toward women.)
Julia Roberts shines, Jude Law does Alfie reprise
Despite the poorly delineated characters that inhabit the Closer realm, Mike Nichols, known for his capable handling of actors (Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge, Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl, etc.), elicits at least a modicum of substance from three of the four leads – with Natalie Portman’s irredeemably stilted Alice being the sole exception.
Stripped of every artifice that has hampered some of her previous performances, a mature Julia Roberts (Best Actress Oscar winner for the inane Erin Brockovich, 2000) shines as Anna, bringing a much needed touch of warmth to a role that in a less capable actress’ hands would have come across as a pathetic nonentity. Roberts, in fact, is Closer’s only performer to fully rise above the screenplay’s shortcomings.
Clive Owen, who played Dan in the original stage production, displays a strong, magnetic screen presence that would have made even Clark Gable shudder. Yet this otherwise capable actor is ultimately unable to transform stagy lines into real-life talk.
Jude Law 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 lover boy charming fall flat. After all, Dan is nothing more than Alfie Elkins’ obnoxious twin brother – something that makes Alice’s and, particularly, Anna’s infatuation with him seem patently absurd.
Melodramatic tricks & ‘shocking’ banalities
In the final analysis, Mike Nichols and Patrick Marber’s Closer fails for the same reason that its truth-impaired characters fail to connect with one another: The movie keeps us at a distance from its core, focusing instead on melodramatic tricks and “shocking” banalities.
Those looking for a truly fearless take on dysfunctional human relationships may want to skip this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? redux and check out the original instead.
Director: Mike Nichols.
Screenplay: Patrick Marber.
From his own 1997 play.
Cast: Julia Roberts. Jude Law. Clive Owen. Natalie Portman. Nick Hobbs. Colin Stinton.
“Closer Movie (2004) Review” endnotes
In addition, Closer earned Natalie Portman the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe, and its cast (Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Owen, Portman) the National Board of Review’s Best Ensemble citation.
Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts Closer movie images: Columbia Pictures.
“Closer Movie (2004): The Perfect Dysfunctional Date Flick” last updated in September 2021.