Wednesday, March 7, 2007

From The Vault: Closer

Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen,
Running Time: 104 min.
Rating: R

Release Date: 2004

*** (out of ****)

"A heart is a fist covered in blood!"

- Larry

"Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off, but its better if you do."

Released in December, 2004 Mike Nichols' Closer (based on Patrick Marber's acclaimed stage play) is likely one of the angriest films about sex and relationships you'll ever witness. It unfolds like a chess game, with each character carefully making their move to inflict pain on one other and, in an interesting twist, using the truth instead of lies to do it. The film, which garnered supporting acting Oscar nominations for Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, also has some of the most insanely quotable dialogue in recent memory. The first quote you see above is actually one of the tamer lines in the film, but merely transcribing can do no justice to the ferocity with which Clive Owen's character delivers it. Anyone familar with the band Panic at the Disco! will probably recognize the second quote above (which was spoken by Natalie Portman in the most memorable scene in the film) because they took it as names for two of their songs.

It's a powerful film, yet when it was over I couldn't help thinking the whole didn't quite equal the sum of its parts. It checks in at a brisk but emotionally draining 104 minutes, which actually works in its favor because I'm not too sure how much more of it I could have taken. If nothing else, it's worth seeing as an actor's showcase as there are some really interesting performances amidst some admiteddly bizarre casting decisions. You'll see some actors in roles unlike anything you've ever witnessed them in before. For all you Natalie Portman fans out there (and I know there are many), you'll be happy to know that you can tell anyone if they watch one starring her, this should be it. But they'll have to wipe the drool off themselves when it's over.

"Hello, stranger." Those are the first words to open Closer as a magenta-haired Alice (Natalie Portman) lies on a London street after being struck by a taxi cab. She looks up at Dan (a whiny, annoying Jude Law), an obituary writer comes to her rescue and accompanies her to the hospital. It's the beginning of a beautiful romance. Well, no actually it isn't. It's the beginning of an emotional nightmare for this couple and one other, as well as for the audience.

Flash forward a year later and Dan has written a book based on Alice's previous life as a stripper in New York called (ridiculously as one character points out), "The Aquarium." He goes to the loft of photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) to get his shot taken for the book jacket and not so innocent flirtation soon turns into something more. Maybe the best moment in the entire film occurs when Alice arrives at Anna's loft to meet Dan. I'm not going to spoil what happens in the scene, but the way it plays out is nothing like what you'd expect and Portman is amazing in it. However Anna, who spends most of this movie falsely believing she's on a moral ground higher than the rest of these characters, puts the skids on the relationship.

An angry Dan decides to play a little prank on her. He poses as Anna in a dirty internet chat room and sets up a meeting with Larry (Clive Owen), a horny dermatologist who's in for the embarassment of his life when he shows up and the real Anna is there. The joke's on Dan however as Anna and Dr. Larry's mutual amusement at the situation leads to a relationship and eventually marriage. We flash forward again a little further to Anna's photo exhibit and the affair between Anna and Dan suddenly seems to be on again, in no small part due to Dan's needy, obsessive, stalkerish infatuation with her. It's here where the story becomes emotionally brutal and the characters hurt each other rather senselessly and pathetically. They hurt only with words, but those words are like a knife to the heart as Marber's dialogue jumps off the page and out of the mouths of these talented actors.

We're used to romantic dramas, especially those involving infidelity to follow the same general formula. A man or woman cheats and then spends most of the rest of the film lying about it or trying to cover it up. Then the significant other somehow finds out and everything explodes at the end. This screenplay does something very interesting by having the characters being completely open and honest about their heinous behavior, thus resulting in nearly every scene in the film exploding with conflict. The movie is extemely talky (as most adaptations of stage plays are) but it holds your interest because of the power of the dialogue and the conviction of the performances. It also raises the question that if you tell the truth, does that make what you've done any less worse? Sure, these characters are being honest with one another but they're doing it just to hurt one another and ease their guilty conscience.

You'll have fun ranking them on their levels of deplorability as you watch the film. Many consider Clive Owen's Dr. Larry to be the worst of the bunch because he seems to take way too much delight in hurling his hurtful but witty one-liners and, like Anna, has a false belief he's acting more responsibly than everyone else. I actually thought he was the most likable because unlike the rest of the chracters he at least had the self-respect to fight back even if his methods were questionable. Owen (who actually played Dan in the stage version) is known for playing dark, brooding characters, but here he starts out as kind of a hapless sap, who due to circumstances beyond his control is turned dark and brooding. It's a huge transformation but Owen pulls it off and it's no surprise to me he was also able to play the role of Dan on stage and Larry on screen. He's that versatile.

2004 was the year Jude Law was in just about every other movie and he's the weak link in this as he mopes from scene to scene adding nothing to the role of Dan. I realize this guy is supposed to be a loser and a coward, but Jonathan Rhys Meyers played nearly the exact same role a year later in Woody Allen's Match Point to far greater effect. Law just seemed to sleep walk through this. Julia Roberts is actually really, really good as Anna. That I believed Law's character would cheat on Alice with her (when on paper it would seem unfathomable) is a high compliment to Julia as an actress. There's also something really funny and exciting seeing an actress who's been known as "America's sweetheart" having to deliver the dirty, graphic lines she does in this movie. Here's an example of casting against type that actually works.

The most sympathy to be had is for Alice, in no small part due to the fact that Portman is playing her, which I'm sure Nichols knew. She gives a great performance , made all the more brave and admirable by the fact that, like Roberts, she is completely miscast. By the end though, our sympathy dwindles for her as we're given a hint she not only hasn't been straight with the other characters, but with us.

What's strange about the film is that it presents itself as a no holds barred look at sex, infidelity and relationships but there's absolutely no sex or nudity in the picture. The closest we get is the now relatively infamous scene at the strip club with Alice and Dr. Larry. This encounter should give Portman fans a heart attack and joins the list of reasons the pause button on a remote control was invented. It comes dangerously close to being offensive and expoitive but Portman's performance reigns it in. I read an interview with her saying she took this role to overcome her fears and prove to herself she could do something different like this. She did, but I'm not sure at what cost or whether that's the right reason to ever take a role. Supposedly a nude scene was filmed then taken out at her insistence. but trust me she comes close enough that it didn't really make a difference either way. From what we know about her and her previous film choices, this had to be an ordeal for her to shoot and I commend her bravery in doing it.

Since the movie was filmed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?) we know at least an adequate job was done visually to make it look like it's an important film. I have to be honest though and say that by the end I'm not too sure what we accomplished. Everything seemed to go back to where it started off originally, despite Nichols' attempt to visually convey an amazing transformation of sorts (for Alice at least) at the end. That attempt, which really bookends the entire story, is set to Damien Rice's haunting and hypnotic song "The Blower's Daughter." I mention that not only because it's an integral part of the story because the music video for that song is the only special feature available on the DVD release of this film.

You'd figure if any film deserved an in depth analysis complete with commentaries and interviews it was this. How did Portman feel about doing that strip club scene and how did she approach it? What would director Nichols have to say about the deeper themes of the story and how he tried to convey them? You could go on all day. A film exploring as many issues as this deserved a double disc set. The movie may not be as important as Nichols intended it to be but there is a certain cruel irony in the film's title. When the story's over we feel no closer to the main characters than they do to one another, which is probably for the better.

No comments: