Last I checked, Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Graduate) isn’t an ironic director. His style is too grounded in realistic and intense confrontations & interactions between his main characters for irony. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a scathing script and great acting from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made for a biting gaze at the psychological discords of marriage. Fast-forward 28 years to 2004, when apparently Nichols concluded that relationships are built on implausible, longshot chance encounters: his newest film Closer is a contrived and unconvincing look at a love quadrangle, full of artificial moments and passionless direction. The uninspired casting doesn’t help matters; Jude Law plays his usual pretty-boy self, though this time he shows a cowardly streak. Julia Roberts is her usual bland self, save for one scene (later). Natalie Portman looks great in a thong—and she’s passable otherwise—but played the same part better in Garden State. Only Clive Owen seems awake: his Larry has a consistent spunk, something the remainder of the cast mostly lacks.
Closer tells the tale of four similar-yet-different folks—Dan (Law), Alice (Portman), Anna (Roberts), and Larry (Owen). Law’s a wanna-be journalist stuck writing obituaries; Alice a former stripper-turned-waitress without any real career ambition; Anna a photographer; Owen a prestigious doctor. Through various meetings, each winds up with some sort of intense relationship with everyone else: even Dan & Larry have a heated (non-sexual) exchange. As a study of the randomness of relationship and theirthe circular tendencies– how everyone deep down wants to change the person they’re dating, to mold them into something they’re not—Closer mostly misses the mark; only the occasional sequence reminds us that a talented director is behind the camera, not some amateur hack. If the film had a surreal tone, it might be easier to forgive the non-stop series of unfortunate events; the problem is that Nichols never gives us any indication that we’re supposed to view Closer symbolically instead of realistically. Too many scenes resemble the following:
Larry sees Anna for the first time, thinks she’s the slut who he was talking dirty to on the internet, and begins to work his ‘magic,’ including a sexual innuendo: exchanging her wet knickers. [This was all set up by Dan in a chat-room prank]
Four months later, when Roberts and Owen are four months into their relationship.
Give me a break. A female acquaintance remarked: “No woman has ever existed who would listen to a strange man confess what Larry did…then strike up a relationship with him.” I don’t completely agree with this—people are weird, and a shrewd screenplay could have made me believe a couple could hook up in that manner. However, Closer doesn’t come close to finding a convincing motive—Nichols can’t just fast-forward to them being together, and expect us to buy into it! I hated Closer’s narrative structure—two characters interact, then Nichols inexplicably cuts to some later moment in their relationship. Why are we supposed to give a damn what happens to these people? Oh, right, the flashbacks a few moments later…blech.
Occasionally, an inspired scene will replace the junk, making us wish this kind of directorial energy had buoyed the entire picture. The sexually vicious Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-esque verbal exchange between Larry & Anna before Anna leaves him feels excruciatingly authentic, with the proper balance of sexual lingo and raised voices, as do Larry & Alice’s meeting in the strip club (not surprisingly, Owen is part of both these scenes). Unfortunately, though, such sequences are scarce. The ending is particularly ridiculous. Sure, Alice was lying to Dan the entire movie (yet honest with Dan in the strip club; part of why that scene really worked), but her feelings for him were clearly genuine. For them to utterly dissipate in a 175 second stretch of life is stupid, one example of the poor filmmaking on display in the movie; another—Alice’s initial reaction to Dan’s confession of infidelity—must be seen to be believed. Overall, the ideas behind Closer are better than the movie itself, which fails at all its intended goals…though it has enough passable-to-good moments to save it from complete ineptitude. With a better script, Closer could have been compelling romantic drama—instead, it’s little more than clichéd nonsense.