Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan


Posted by CinemaPsycho on December 21, 2004

Directed by Mike Nichols/Screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on his play/starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen/Columbia Pictures

Two couples meet and proceed to fuck up each others’ lives.

I often hear someone say that the latest horror movie is “the scariest thing I’ve ever seen” and I have to wonder how emotionally mature they are. As much as I enjoy horror films, they don’t really scare me much anymore. You want to know what scares me? Neil LaBute films. Seriously, watching vicious assholes verbally eviscerate each other for sport really freaks me out, much more than a mongoloid in a hockey mask or a little Japanese girl with supernatural powers ever could. The idea that people like Rachel Weisz’ character in The Shape of Things – a soulless, manipulative she-demon from Hell itself – actually exist in the real world? THAT gives me nightmares. Jason Patric’s pro-anal-rape speech in Your Friends and Neighbors? That’s some truly scary shit. I’d rather meet Freddy Krueger in a dark alley at midnight than any of those people.

Where horror films are essentially about the inevitability of death, these “relationship dramas” are about the inevitability of severe, unrelenting pain in life. On that level, at least, Closer is a truly frightening white-knuckle rollercoaster ride that will rip out your heart and urinate on it. But nobody dies or is even wounded – physically, anyway. The weapons here are all words, and the scars they leave are the kinds that don’t go away with the passage of time.

It might be easy to be fooled by the opening scenes, in which young singles Dan (Law) and Alice (Portman) get together in a typically pseudo-romantic “meet-cute” contrived situation worthy of a Nora Ephron movie. As idyllic as it seems, things turn ugly when they both meet Anna (Roberts), whom Dan is instantly attracted to in spite of the fact that he’s dating Natalie Portman. Then things take a turn for the perverse when Anna meets Larry (Owen) after a chat-room practical joke played by Dan goes awry. Anna and Larry are eventually married, but Dan can’t stay away from her. Soon Dan and Anna decide to leave their significant others to be together, and that’s when everything turns to shit.

A lesser director would have likely played out this scenario as a simple revenge story, or even worse, as a bring-your-Kleenex weepie suitable for the Lifetime network. Nichols trusts the material and the actors and, as any half-decent critic will tell you, combines the emotional wallop of the hysterical (and I don’t mean funny) arguing couples in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the shocking sexual frankness of Carnal Knowledge. (I realize there should be a question mark after Woolf, but my Word program won’t let me do that without starting a new sentence. Thanks anyway.) The result is a film that’s not so much “entertaining” as it is blistering and bruising to the audience. If you walk out feeling like you’ve been punched in the gut, that’s exactly what was intended.

I really admired Closer, though it’s not quite a perfect film. It occasionally feels stagey and artificial, which is inevitable due to the fact that it’s an adaptation of a play. But Nichols’s sure hand keeps that feeling at bay for the most part, staying so focused on the characters that we often don’t notice any problems in transferring the material from one medium to another. It’s jarring when a false note is hit, but it doesn’t keep you from enjoying the piece as a whole (if “enjoying” is really the proper description).

It certainly doesn’t hurt that all four of the actors here are at the top of their game. Law proves exactly why he’s in every other movie that comes out these days (OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it sure feels like it) – he balances Dan’s surefooted swagger with a disarming vulnerability. Owen gives the ruthless Larry a ferociousness that’s downright mesmerizing at times (if only he could’ve done the same with King Arthur). Natalie Portman – wow. Holy shit, she’s amazing. I don’t want to give away too much about her character, because it would spoil some crucial plot points later in the film, but man alive, she eats this movie for lunch. She not only hit a home run, she broke the goddamn bat. Seriously. If you don’t believe that Queen Amidala could possibly give a performance so alive and intense…well, you obviously haven’t seen this movie yet. I hate to be one of those “Oscar-predicting” people, but it’d be criminal if she doesn’t at least get a nomination out of this. Alice is one of those roles that make you completely re-evaluate an actor’s career and changes your perceptions of them irrevocably. (Then again, I still haven’t seen Garden State, so maybe this is old news, but holy Christ, Portman can really act. Believe it.)

That brings us to Julia Roberts. Unlike some people, I really don’t have a problem with her as a performer. A lot of the films she chooses to do don’t really interest me that much, and I usually wind up seeing them on video or cable at some point and kinda shrugging my shoulders about them. Like most big-name movie stars, she usually plays a variation of herself (or at least of her public image) and does it reasonably well. She rarely gets to act, and doesn’t really need to (Erin Brockovich was obviously a notable exception). Having said that, I think she kicks ass here. Nothing about her performance as Anna says “typical Julia Roberts fluff piece”. She’s playing a real character here, one with weaknesses and vulnerabilities as well as strengths, and she does so extremely well. She gives the kind of performance that I certainly didn’t expect from “Julia Roberts”, and I think she has to be commended for that. Plus, if you’ve ever wanted to hear “America’s Sweetheart” delivering lines with language that would normally be reserved for hardcore porn films, you’re in luck.

The few minor problems I have with the film seem to be inherent in the material itself. I never quite understood why Dan and Anna were so hopelessly drawn to each other – but I think that’s a problem with the writing, not with either actor’s performance. They played the characters perfectly as written, there just seems to be a gap in place of something that would really explain the attraction. They never seem right for each other at all, which maybe was the point. And without giving too much away, at about the halfway point one character makes a choice that I didn’t quite believe anyone on Earth would logically make. It just seems forced and contrived, something that happens only so the next thing can happen, and then the next and so on. But you know what? People do stupid, selfish things like that all the time. Usually they themselves couldn’t tell you why. Life rarely makes that kind of sense.
Maybe that’s the whole point of the film. Some would probably say so. But I think there’s more going on here than that. Ultimately, each of these characters is trapped in their own personal hell because of who they choose to love. Each of them does selfish and hurtful things because of it, and each of them is hurt in kind. No one is completely invulnerable, no matter how much they like to pretend otherwise. They’re all fucked up, and they get more fucked up as the movie goes on.

Unlike LaBute’s characters, they’re not being purposely mean-spirited towards each other (with one exception I can’t give away). They’re merely acting on their emotions rather than their minds. They’re doing what they know how to do, and each of them thinks it’s the right thing for their own reasons. If they tear each other apart in the process, it’s only because they don’t know any better. It’s a pretty sad commentary on modern relationships that the whole thing becomes a “game” that is ultimately won by the person who plays the dirtiest. But there isn’t really any joy in the victory either. It’s all just part of the process, a fact of everyday life.

Then there’s the theme of “the truth”, which each character demands of their partner at some point, then can’t deal with once it comes out. They insist on honesty without being capable of delivering it themselves. And the process of extracting that truth becomes too painful for each of them to bear. Closer proves once and for all that maybe sometimes the actual truth shouldn’t be known, that maybe a lie we can live with is better than a fact that we can’t. The need to know can be more damaging than the answer itself. And some secrets desperately need to be kept.

I’ve heard people ask rhetorically why they should sit through this movie. Why should we care about these “pretty people” and their problems? I asked myself the same question before I saw the film. Ultimately, I can’t tell you why you should care. That’s not my job. I can only tell you that you will, because the film is that good. For some of us, it will be a bracing, cathartic experience. For others, it will be a slog through other people’s dirty laundry. Your call.

Closer is not an easy film to watch. In fact, it’s pretty brutal at times. It doesn’t hold back or pull punches like so many Hollywood films. For this, it will be more admired than it will be loved. But those qualities are exactly what make it well worth seeing. Just don’t bring your significant other along – unless you’re looking forward to a nice, long argument afterwards.

*** 1/2 12/21/04

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: