Been Here, Done This

Photo by Clive Coot

In Mike Nichols’ movie of Patrick Marber’s 1997 stage play Closer, four glum types fall in and out of love with each other in attractive London lofts, while lifting their skirts to show us their intimacy issues, identity issues and truth-telling issues. For all the accolades Closer picked up on both sides of the Atlantic, the play, at least on the evidence of Marber’s screen adaptation, adds up to little more than glib dinner theater for the urban-anomic crowd, who doubtless saw in this narrowly psychological tale of the ruins of modern love something they recognized, and went home happy. Why Nichols would want to make rack of lamb out of this stringy leg of mutton is not immediately clear. Certainly he’s mined this territory more fruitfully, not to mention more entertainingly, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge.

A roundelay of devious, mendacious and self-obsessed behavior that solicits our sympathy without ever earning it, Closer opens with a chance meeting in Manhattan between Dan (Jude Law, in toned-down Alfie mode), a stalled novelist who cobbles together a living writing obituaries, and a scarlet-haired punk (Natalie Portman) of unusual candor who introduces herself as Alice. A year later this unlikely pair is shacked up in London, where Dan’s novel, inspired by his young muse’s past as a stripper, has taken off. Far from being happy with what he has, Dan is casting a lascivious eye on Anna, a divorced photographer, mournfully played by Julia Roberts in a near-parody, if that’s possible, of her ill-starred turn in Stephen Frears’ Mary Reilly. Rejected after a fashion by Anna, Dan stages an Internet prank that has the effect of landing her a new husband, a dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). And away they go, Alice and Dan and Anna and Larry, cheating and lying and paying back and howling in pain as if their lives depended on it. If you haven’t been here, Marber seems to be telling us, you haven’t lived.

Maybe. Marber has a pert sense of structure and a gift for tersely pseudo-momentous dialogue that no one I know (and I have put in my time looking for love among unreliable providers) would actually speak. The playwright has characterized Closer as a "nice, simple love story" about "the male gaze," a fancy term for leering cooked up in the halls of French academe. God help love, and God help all victims of the male gaze. Midway through Closer, Portman is made to display much of her firm, round rear end while pole dancing in a strip club and bantering nastily with Owen, who has vengeful seduction in mind. This blatantly exploitive scene, whose hams may bring home the required bacon at the box office, has already caused at least one Hollywood-gossip blogger of my acquaintance to froth away appreciatively on his site, and not about the movie’s philosophical import.

Like most of Nichols’ films, Closer is put together with urbane polish. Ever the witty editor, he has the action skip nimbly ahead and back, not as mere flashback, but to replicate the characters’ memories of what happened, then show the unintended consequences of their devious strategems. Given the slightness of the material, though, he falls into the trap of aestheticizing mundane neurosis and bad behavior, personifying both in pretty movie stars housed in Crate and Barrel surroundings. Strip away the cavernous lofts, the minimalist art galleries and the pricey consulting rooms, and you have four characters unable to earn their keep with the audience.

It’s not a matter of likability — most of us are fairly intolerable when pining for love — but of where all this moaning and groaning is going, other than toward the pro forma rueful insight and compassion that adversity brings in its wake, at least in the movies. Absent any deeper understanding, Closer is left stranded, an unwitting vindication of petty cruelty, lying and plain old dithering. Though Alice, a harmless liar, is advanced as the one person capable of telling it like it is, the truest words in the movie are spoken by a forthright London cabby who, tiring of Dan’s indecision about whether to get into his taxi or not, growls, "Make up yer bleedin’ mind." Exactly.

CLOSER | Directed by MIKE NICHOLS | Adapted by PATRICK MARBER from his stage play | Produced by NICHOLS, JOHN CALLEY and CARY BROKAW Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide


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