directed by Mike Nichols
(Columbia, 2004)

The four central characters in Closer are not happy people and, with the possible exception of one, I doubt they ever will be.

I'll risk spoiling the surprise enough to warn you this is not a happy-ending movie. If that bothers you, consider watching Pretty Woman instead.

Their story begins on a London street, where former stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) and obituary writer Daniel (Jude Law) meet cute, with a twist. Their eyes meet from afar as they approach from opposite sides of a pedestrian crosswalk; she, distracted and possibly unfamiliar with the British custom of driving on the left, is plowed down by a taxi. When Daniel rushes to her side, Alice flutters her eyes and says "Hello, stranger" before swooning in his arms.

After the requisite visit to a nearby hospital and his reluctant confession that he has a girlfriend, the movie skips forward a year. Alice and Daniel are living together, and Daniel is having his photo taken for the jacket of his first novel -- which is based on Alice's life. But Daniel, seemingly much more confident and controlled than he was in the opening scene, makes a pass at the photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts) -- and she responds with dry enthusiasm, until he admits his indiscretion and dampens her ardor. Alice soon arrives and realizes what's been going on; while she doesn't let on to Daniel, possibly in fear that he'll leave her, she tentatively confronts Anna ... and a photo Anna snaps at that moment is a poignant image that only hints at things to come.

Daniel rather childishly poses as Anna in an Internet chat room and sets her up to meet Larry, a lonely doctor (Clive Owen), for what Larry believes is quickie sex. Oddly, Anna and Larry hit it off in spite of their awkward meeting, and soon enough they're married.

But it turns out Daniel is still stalking Anna, and their inevitable affair began several months before the wedding. A year later, he confesses the relationship to Alice, who greets the news with utter devastation.

The relationships among these four people continue to twist and unravel for some time, and by the end of Closer, the audience has a pretty clear picture of the emotional state of each. Of them all, it's easiest to dislike Daniel, who plays hard with the feelings around him, and it's hard not to pity Anna -- with a certain degree of disdain -- for her self-destructive addiction to guilt. True sympathy may be reserved for Larry and Alice, however, both of whom suffer greatly at their partners' hands. But Larry has a vicious streak that lends strength to his character, while Alice is left utterly open and vulnerable, despite her own litany of games and secrets.

Closer is immensely entertaining as both a character study and the intricate tapestry that these four people become. It is quite depressing, too, as it paints an unflinching picture of the things people can do to one another, of the indelicate way in which people often handle the fragile hearts around them.

Both Portman and Owen shine brilliantly in the film, laying their emotions bare and making Alice and Larry into fully developed, flesh-and-blood characters. Their hurt and anger is like salt on a nerve rubbed raw, and it's gripping material from two stars on the rise.

Law, perhaps suffering some backlash for reports on his real-life relationships, comes across a little too coldly, but Daniel remains a believable, three-dimensional foil. Only Roberts comes up short, making Anna a flat, charmless character who seems unlikely to inspire such passion and devotion in the two leading men. (Cate Blanchett, who was attached to the part until pregnancy forced her withdrawal, would have improved on Roberts' portrayal tenfold.)

I imagine this movie is far better on video than it was in the theater, because the remote control afforded my wife and I the chance to pause often and discuss the various choices and behaviors before us, to examine the motivations behind certain actions and make predictions of the outcome.

None of our guesses, by the way, hit the mark.

It would have been far easier for director Mike Nichols to tailor Closer into a romantic comedy. But, while chuckles might provide more immediate satisfaction to the audience, it also would have been more forgettable; the pain and heartache makes a more lasting impression.

by Tom Knapp
19 August 2006

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