This is a movie that will make ears burn from the causticity of the words spilling from its characters’ screwed-up mouths. Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) is no stranger to controversy, and he’s created one of the uglier films about the nature of bad, bad relationships. Mind you, this is not a criticism, just an acknowledgement that this film features characters and behavior that will leave many feeling their worst relationship pales in comparison to the disasters taking place in this movie.
When Alice and Dan (Natalie Portman and Jude Law) first see each other, it’s the stuff of fairy tales. They make eye contact as they walk toward one another on a crowded London street, smile and make a genuinely sweet connection. Then Alice takes a distracted step into the street and is promptly hit by a taxicab. The two should’ve taken this as a sign of bad things to come.
After their meeting, the film jumps ahead to a photo shoot, where Dan meets photographer Anna (Julia Roberts), and they find themselves kissing shortly before Alice, Dan’s now-long-time girlfriend, arrives to meet him. A strange Internet chat leads to Anna meeting Larry (Clive Owen) and winding up in their entanglement. Things get further entangled when each of the four eventually meets. They also get rather detestable and cruel.
Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber (who wrote the play the film is adapted from), seem determined to make the nastiest movie about relationships ever put to screen, and they are certainly in the ballpark. This rivals stuff like Neil LaBute’s super-dark Your Friends and Neighbors and some of the more disturbing work of Todd Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling).
Nichols and Marber play upon the paranoia and suspicions that destroy and sink average relationships. While some of the stuff these characters get away with might feel a bit unrealistic, the outrageous situations are tempered by characters speaking intelligently and in a true-to-life fashion. The characters all share damaging, selfish traits that make it almost necessary to hurt themselves and others.
Portman, who shined earlier this year in Garden State, makes the jump to more adult fare with this one. Besides the simple fact that she spends a decent chunk of the film nearly naked, her dialogue and interaction with this cast are a far cry from her oddly coifed space battles in the Star Wars films. Clive Owen, who was just miserable in King Arthur, makes up for it and then some with his portrayal of Larry, a dermatologist who is alternately the sweetest man alive and a criminally harsh pontificator. He’s capable of such utter cruelty that he makes one wish to hide under the theater seat and pray for the bad man to go away.
Owen, Law and Portman all have showier roles, and it would probably be easy for some to dismiss the work of Julia Roberts as underwhelming and too reserved. That would be a mistake. Her calm work here acts as a sort of anchor for the film, albeit an unstable one. Anna is deceptive, a quiet, sweet person on the surface whose outward behavior doesn’t match her cheating actions. She might not have the obvious nastiness of the male characters, but she’s equally horrible in the end.
I don’t expect many folks to actually enjoy watching Closer. I even expect that some dates will end on a rather bad note as people start asking each other questions on the ride home. So, if you’ve been misbehaving as of late, I suggest taking your date to The Incredibles.