CLOSER A cornucopia of psychosexual desire and mindfucks.
dir. Nichols
Open Fri Dec 3
Various Theaters

Anytime a sane person hears the words "love" or "romance" used to describe a film, it should serve as a fucking red-alert klaxon--heralding softly lit, slo-mo images of laughing, dancing and holding hands, where quirky cuteness and wry, adoring comments serve as both currency and virtue for the characters. Movies with those descriptors almost always handle their subjects with a bubblegummy sort of bliss, as if love is something that only happens once and just with one person (even worse, those films might even go so far as to un-ironically preface "love" with "true").

Every once in a while, though, there's a film about love that doesn't do any of the above--that treats love and romance as undeniably beautiful things that are just as undeniably filled with duplicity, anger, confusion, and pain. These films could also be described by "love" and "romance"--but are made for those who don't subsist on escapist delusions. Looking at love in this way is an unsavory business, and it's no small irony it's often a heartbreaking task.

And so it is in director Mike Nichols' Closer. Written by Patrick Marber (and based on his play), the film is subtle and calm--but roiling just beneath its surface are the most chaotic, bloody, and desperate of emotions.

Closer begins with a transparent romantic comedy cliché--love at first sight strikes Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) as their eyes meet amongst a sea of commuters in downtown London. There's something charming and hidden about Dan (who, having failed at novels, now writes obituaries) and Alice, an American, is equal parts giggly girl, cynical critic of humanity, and a prematurely exhausted component of the sordid real world. There's never any real doubt as to how this will work out between them--at least for the first 15 minutes or so--and the bond between Alice and Dan proves a solid opportunity to introduce Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer and American expatriate who has an unwilling connection with Dan, and Larry (Clive Owen), a doctor whose uncompromising influence and misanthropy soon spread to Anna, Dan, and Alice.

Everything in Closer revolves around these four characters, and their well- and ill-intentioned romantic and sexual experiences with each other. On one hand, nothing happens in Closer--its narrative hops from character to character, following events that by all rights should only be interesting to those who experience them firsthand--but on the other, everything happens, as the film fearlessly examines the vicious and giddy places everyone has been. Closer's incestuously twisting narrative is rooted in the psychosexual drives of its characters, and it's all topped off with enough sadistic mindfucks and inevitable despair to satisfy even the staunchest emotional masochist.

All of this would feel false--like a too-desperate set-up for drama rather than legitimate drama itself--if it weren't for the script and the performances, both of which are exemplary. Especially notable is Portman, who, for the first time, truly comes into her own as an actress. She's been talented and beautiful since her 1994 debut in The Professional, but in all her work, there's always been the sense that her talent is untapped. Here, in an admittedly risky move, that talent is taken advantage of--Portman's sensual Alice carries and propels the film, serving as the characters' muse and the narrative's catalyst. Alice is simultaneously the most objectified and humane of Closer's subtly, intimately drawn characters, and Portman's uniquely jaded and naíve presence is what holds the film together.

Roberts also enjoys a welcome break from her standard roles; her transformation into the guarded, shadowy Anna is a far larger (and trickier) jump than the one she was hailed for taking in Erin Brockovich. It's easy to discredit Roberts as the megastar that she's become--fame of her size has largely confined her to appearances alongside Oprah, or as eye-candy in the upcoming Ocean's Twelve--and it's both a relief and a surprise to remember that she's a subtle, strong actress as well.

The same could be said for Law, whose fame is approaching critical mass after appearing in no fewer than six of this year's films. Here, Law handles the exceedingly slippery Dan with ease and unexpected depth. Often disgusting but always sympathetic, Dan's the type of character that Hugh Grant has spent his career stuttering into cliché; watching Law bring it back to believability is one of the least flashy, but most fascinating things Closer has to offer. And as for Owen, he owns a role that's largely thankless, and increasingly discomfiting. It'd be too easy to define Larry as the most villainous of Closer's ensemble--his embrace of (and reliance upon) an outdated male gaze is impossible not to loathe on a plethora of levels--but it's hard not to be on Larry's side through several of the film's exchanges.

But then again, the audience is never really on the side of any of Closer's characters. The film has no moral barometer, nor judgment from Nichols or Marber--its characters and their actions are viewed with an almost documentary-like gaze. Aside from a few moments of intrusion--the overly stylized opening, the extraneous final shots--everything in Closer feels unobstructed, as if the camera's merely capturing what's occurring, leaving it up to the increasingly uncomfortable audience to view, to decrypt, to judge, with only the slightest hint of the filmmakers' sympathy for the intertwined psyches and bodies on display. Closer is a powerful film, but never a forceful one.

As the film gains momentum, there's something of a revelation regarding what the highly touted (and clearly Oscar-driven) Closer really is. It's not a dramatic powerhouse or a profound meditation on love, hate, and self--it's simply a powerful character sketch that wrestles with those themes with great tenacity and intelligence. Emotionally, Closer is a grimy, independent film stuck in a shiny, easily-marketable engine, and while it at first feels like some sort of miracle that the small film inside has found its way out, it becomes clear by the film's climaxes that it's less because of chance and more due to the talent of its makers. That's no small feat, considering that Nichols is wildly unpredictable (his resume boasts everything from the sublime The Graduate to the embarrassing Wolf), and Closer's potentially ruinous (but ultimately profound and daring) dependence upon moral atheism.

To say that all of this comes from a film in which nothing really happens--or that this film could be summed up as dealing with mere "love" and "romance"--would be grossly unfair. Instead of what could have been a barrage of simplistic cuteness and falsely affirming platitudes, the darkly fascinating Closer instead becomes one of the best pictures of the year--and a film that powerfully proves that the most complex and emotionally wrenching stories writhe beneath the surfaces of the simplest narratives.