At long last, Mike Nichols has returned to the theater of compulsion. The hallowed director has already been responsible for conveying some of the most memorable cinematic characters ever to do one unhealthy activity well enough to write an entire movie about it--characters like the incessant fighters (George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the unreasoning suitor (Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate) and the malevolent relationship-ruiner (Jonathan Fuerst in Carnal Knowledge)--and now, at age 73, Nichols has combined the worst impulses of all four into the cinematic greatest hits package Closer. Here's a synopsis: beautiful and talented actors and actresses screw each other, screw each other up and tell each other to screw off.
Closer takes place in a dimension similar to ours, but also similar to the sitcom dimension. The reason: ironic and well-placed quips are the ultimate currency. "You want kids?/Not today!," "I don't kiss strange men./Neither do I.," "You've ruined my life!/You'll get over it.'"--these are just a few of the blue-ribbons from the first hour of the film. Suffice it to say, any cowboy looking to get lucky needs a bandolier of zingers, and all four major characters strike the jackpot.
By which I mean they have sex. Incessantly. It's a pity that the title Carnal Knowledge has already been used once by Nichols, because it actually makes more sense here than in Jack Nicholson's 98-minute misogynistic meltdown. Sex isn't just what the four characters in this adaptation of Patrick Marber's acclaimed play like to do; it is all they do, all they know and all they discuss. Sure, they have jobs--Dan (Jude Law) is a failed novelist and obit writer, Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer, Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist and Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper--but they never let such trifles get in the way of their true callings. For instance, our sole glimpse of Larry at work is when he has graphic cybersex on a hospital computer with Dan, who is pretending to be Anna--wait ... did you just hear the uncomfortable seat squirming of a theater's worth of middle-aged Julia Roberts fans? Likewise, Anna's shutterbugging only serves to ease her hooking up with Dan. As for Alice, she's the most ... outgoing stripper in town and Dan, well, his novel is about the adventures that have occurred in Alice's undies.
Marber's screenplay is tight, fast, obscene, mean and must make for a great onstage performance in the right actors' hands. That compliment, unfortunately, is also the film's undoing. Very little about Closer, aside from the names of the talent involved, demands that it ever had to "graduate" to the big screen in the first place. Nichols and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt present the imagery in a staid style, very deferential to the script. Indeed, aside from a slow motion street shot of Alice and Dan to open the movie and a remote locale shot at film's end, the settings are almost exclusively single rooms whose characteristics and props are incidental at best. I don't want to conclude that the movie was made simply to add the marketability of Portman's nubile frame, barely obscured by a few camera tricks, to an already popular script, but I'm having trouble finding other convincing reasons.
Likewise, the lines not spoken by one of the four main characters in Closer can be counted on a single hand--or even on a single finger. A four-word sentence by an airport customs official is the extent of it. Such isolation is nothing new to Nichols. After all, only four credited players appeared in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, still his most award-heavy film to date. But while the leap to cinema made Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's performances seem even more malicious and absorbing, it only serves to make the personal squabbles in Closer seem distant, and our involvement in them needlessly voyeuristic. When the credits finally rolled, with a second playing of Damien Rice's painfully shrill song "The Blower's Daughter," I walked out of Marber's hermetically sealed universe exhausted, bemused and no closer to the lively directoral personality that infuses Nichols' best work. Despite its great performances, I would wait for Closer to get a little closer to the dollar theater.