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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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