Film — Closer (R)

Closer (R)

by Amy Diaz

Sex is the largely unseen but much-talked-about star of the romantic quadrangle tale Closer.

Sex between the dewy young couple Jude Law and Natalie Portman. Sex between the wiser and older Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Sex between the womanly Roberts and the wishy-washy romantic Law. Sex between the carnally inclined Owen and the desperate tease Portman. We hear a lot about all this sex. But actual on-screen sex is rarer than a sunny day in London, the story’s setting.

Which fits because, despite all the talk, this tale isn’t really about sex so much as its about four confused pleasure-seekers in love with the idea of love, lust and other things that put a jolt in your knickers.

Dan (Law) is a scruffy little obit writer who falls in lust-at-first-ogle with Alice (Portman), a plucky American girl who goes to great pains to keep herself tough despite the ease with which she gives away her heart. They do a little flirting on the streets of London but finally get the opportunity to meet when Alice, looking left instead of right when she steps off a curb, gets hit by a cab. Dan takes her to the hospital and finds himself completely smitten.

Skip forward a year and they are now a happy couple, living together, with Dan on the verge of publishing a novel about Alice’s life (Alice, now working as a waitress, claims to have been, among other things, a stripper). Dan goes to the publishing house’s photographer for his book-jacket photo and meets Anna (Roberts), the woman behind the lens. They kiss but Anna refuses to go further when she finds out about Alice.

Skip forward a few more months and Dan, besotted with Anna and goofing around on a dirty chat website, poses as Anna as he has IMsex with a doctor named Larry (Owen). Using some of the most obviously-male dirty talk ever (Larry, for a doctor? Not so bright.), Dan lures Larry to meet him IRL and picks a place where he knows Anna might be. When Larry arrives, the real Anna is indeed there and after a few awkward moments, he realizes she is not who he had his e-gasm with. However, Dan’s trick helps spark a friendship between them.

Skip forward a few more months and Larry and Anna are steady boyfriend and girlfriend attending the opening of Anna’s photography exhibit together. Dan and Alice, whose picture Anna took, also show up. Larry, naturally, meets Alice and is deeply appreciative of her almost child-like beauty. Dan later corners Anna and desperately begs to see her. The stage is set for an everybody-is-attracted-to-everybody scenario that begins to unfold when we jump forward more than a year to learn that Larry and Anna have married, Dan and Alice still live together and Anna and Dan are about a year into a raging affair.

What follows is a series of scenes in which people break up, get together, break up again, use sex for various flavors of revenge and spend a lot of words searching for the most cutting insult. That last part is key because — as I mentioned before — this movie contains a whole lot of talking. This is not a bad thing but the quantity does quite a bit to highlight the quality and while the dialogue is very smart it is often extremely stilted. Based on a play, the movie feels stagey at times — characters move awkwardly from one mark to the next very unnaturally. Similarly, the language frequently crosses the line between well-written and over-written.

But while dialog — especially when two charactesr talk specifically about their relationship — sounds stilted and often a little silly the emotion behind it is often surprisingly believable. When he discovers his wife’s infidelity, Owen’s character hurls an almost violent barrage of questions at Roberts. These lines smack of that kind of nobody-talks-this-way awkwardness but his emotion — the violence and hurt that rule his facial expressions and his motions are impressively natural and thoroughly believable.

Likewise, Roberts — yes, Julia Roberts — displays an amazing lack of Robertsness. Her character is both sensible and somewhat loathsome. While it’s not a particularly compelling set of characteristics what blew me away was how very much not Julia Roberts she is. She takes the smile down several watts and wraps up the modally beauty in cotton separates. We might not completely understand why two men all but destroy themselves for her but we frequently consider the character without only seeing the actress.

For his part, the ubiquitous Law is good here in the way he is good in most of his supporting or ensemble roles. He doesn’t have to be the shining star of the film so he spends his time onscreen working — giving us a Dan that is a quivering mass of id and insecurity and only after it’s too late does he appear to grow up.

For Portman this movie will likely be the one she uses to convince filmmakers that, Star Wars aside, she’s actually a grown-up actress. Her performance is at times a bit too actressy — she breaks into too many tears, the stripper hardness seems at times like a dress that’s a bit too big and some of the hardest-to-swallow dialog comes from Alice. But, overall, she is solid.

The real scene-stealer is Owen. Like Heathcliff in a pin-striped suit, Owen’s Dan is all passion and savagery. Overly sexual, perhaps to hide a desperate need for intimacy, Dan allows himself to bleed his feelings — from rage to sadness — and happily shows us the gash.

All come-hither with its tease of sexual politics, Closer is actually a gruesome, if occasionally overwrought, battlefield drama.

- Amy Diaz

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