The Movie Review: 'Closer'

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"Flawlessly lucid"; "viciously insightful"; "quietly devastating"; "emotionally honest and psychologically dense"; "dares speak the truth about modern adult relationships." Those are a few of the phrases that were used to describe the movie Closer when it arrived in theaters late last year. Oddly, as best as I can tell, the following terms were absent from discussion of the film: "ridiculous"; "unmoored from reality"; "emotionally preposterous"; "unintentionally hilarious."

Closer, released on video today, is not a bad movie--or rather it is not merely bad. It's flamboyantly bad, bad in a way that can't help but be fascinating and even entertaining. It's well-enough executed, boasting a couple of good performances and one great one, and it's pleasant to look at. But it's also aggressively, irretrievably silly, a potty-mouthed fantasy that somehow mistakes itself for a fearless excavation of the dark recesses of the human soul, American Pie as reimagined by Neil LaBute.

Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, Closer follows two London couples who meet, fall in love, fall out of love, swap partners, and swap back again, in the process wounding one another in all the ways of which human beings are capable. Scratch that: The wounding is all pretty much of a single variety, specifically, being unfaithful to your (presumed) loved one and then describing the infidelity to him or her in excruciating detail. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because similar territory was plowed just a few months earlier in We Don't Live Here Anymore, a movie that shared Closer's ludicrous belief that displaying unremitting cruelty is somehow the same thing as telling the truth. (You can read my review here.) But if the characters in the former film seemed transplanted from another decade, the characters in Closer seem transplanted from another planet. It's not just that they behave irrationally (though they do), they behave according to no recognizable set of human principles.

Take Dan, played by Jude Law. When we first meet him at the beginning of the film, he's a sweet, bespectacled, romantically timid obituary writer (think Hugh Grant in Notting Hill) who unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful young American named Alice (Natalie Portman) after she is hit by a car. The movie then flashes forward one year. Dan has just completed a sexually provocative novel (unmentioned in the first scene) and is being photographed for the book jacket by another beautiful American, Anna (Julia Roberts). Gone are his glasses, and with them any sign of his earlier demeanor: He's now smooth and predatory (think Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones's Diary), putting the moves on Anna despite the fact that he now lives with Alice, who will arrive at the studio to meet him at any moment. About the only thing these two Dans have in common is Jude Law's face.

Having stolen a kiss from Anna but otherwise had his advances rebuffed (for the time being at least), Dan decides to play an unpleasant trick on her. He goes into an anonymous sex chat room on the Internet, where he encounters a deviant dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). Pretending to be Anna, Dan engages Larry in an X-rated dialogue and proposes a sexual assignation at a location he knows the elusive lady to frequent.

Onstage, this scene was apparently a showstopper, with Dan and Larry's raunchy exchange projected on the wall behind them. Onscreen, shorn of this gimmick, it's a strong contender for the silliest scene in a "serious" movie in the last 25 years. I'll say this once: If you are a male over the age of ten who believes that beautiful women get online to earnestly tell strange men "I love COCK" and "sit on my face, fuckboy," then you should turn your computer off right now and never turn it on again. I mean it.

Larry, having failed to receive my exceptional advice, goes to meet Anna, and finds her somewhat taken aback when he refers to her as a "cum-hungry slut." Anna, intuiting that this was all a prank set up by Dan, decides to spend the afternoon with Larry. Why? Because it's her birthday, and what better way to spend it than with a stranger about whom she knows nothing other than that he frequents pornographic websites in search of rough, anonymous sex?

In no time--literally, the film having taken another of its leaps forward--Larry and Anna are a couple, hosting a museum exhibit of her photos. Dan and Alice show up, and the former again woos Anna, whose defenses appear to be weakening. By our next temporal jump, Anna and Dan have been secret lovers for a year, though she has not allowed this detail to keep her from marrying Larry in the interim. When Dan breaks news of the affair to Alice, she cries; when Anna breaks it to Larry, he demands that she describe the flavor of Dan's ejaculate. "Like yours," she answers, "only sweeter." (Poor Julia, she never had such a filthy mouth back when she played a prostitute.)

From this point, the characters will ping-pong back and forth across the behavioral spectrum, swapping turns as villains and victims, masters and slaves. The innocent will turn out to be jaded and the jaded revealed to be innocent. I'll leave the details to the curious, except to warn of a particularly laughable scene in which Larry encounters Alice at a strip club--did I fail to mention that lovely, sweet, decent Alice is also a stripper?--to swap heartbreak stories and some more graphic sex talk. "I love everything about you that hurts," Larry confesses, moments before demanding that she drop trou, turn around, and bend over, "for my viewing pleasure."

Such ostentatious melodrama may have worked on stage, where emotional fireworks are sometimes the price of reaching people in the back rows. But the up-close medium of film requires either more subdued, realistic portrayals or an explicit admission of theatricality. What Closer needed was a director who would take it in the latter direction, recognizing that it bore no resemblance to the reality of urban romance and embracing its B-movie sleaziness. What it got instead was Mike Nichols, a director whose sense of his own cinematic daring has now outlived said daring by a few decades. Although Closer benefits from Nichols's technical command--it is inarguably a "well-made" film--it is very nearly sunk by the same self-admiring earnestness he displayed with the HBO miniseries Angels in America, another corny, out-of-date project that mistook itself for cutting edge.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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