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With: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen
Written by: Patrick Marber, based on his play
Directed by: Mike Nichols
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language
Running Time: 98
Date: 12/03/2004
IMDB

Closer (2004)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Relationship of Fools

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Mike Nichols exists at the periphery of cinema art.He is the exact opposite of a true artist, yet he commands the respect andadmiration that many artists deserve and don't get. He has entered this spacethe same way directors like William Wyler did, by sprinkling an aura ofimportance about his otherwise bland and personality-free work.

True cinema artists, specifically mavericks, constantly challenge and assault normalcy. They're often punished for their efforts. Consider Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives and Greed chopped to a fraction of their original lengths, or Orson Welles forced to seek work overseas, or Robert Altman retreating into shoestring-budgets after the financial failure of Popeye. Those filmmakers were penalized because their genius was mistakenly viewed as arrogance. Outsiders were more than happy to contribute to their downfall.

Nichols' easygoing films never ruffle anyone. He could have made The Passion of the Christ or Fahrenheit 9/11 and no one would have blinked. Indeed, he did direct something of a political atom bomb with Primary Colors (1998), with minimal uproar. In addition, his last theatrical feature, the dismal flop What Planet Are You From? (2000), came and went without much notice. People were happy to give him more work.

This blind respect is often mistaken for talent, and as a result, you'll probably see many glowing, bombastic reviews of Nichols' new film Closer. You may even see comparisons to two of his early films, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Carnal Knowledge (1970), accompanied by sweeping generalizations about how Nichols is a master of "relationship movies." (What movies are not about relationships?)

Based on a play by Patrick Marber, Closer details four people and their attempts to sabotage each other's relationships. Photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) meets obituary writer Dan (Jude Law), while Dan is still dating stripper/waitress Alice (Natalie Portman). Because of an Internet chat room practical joke, Dan inadvertently sets Anna up with Larry (Clive Owen). They marry, but Dan continues to pursue Anna. When their cheating comes out in the open, Larry goes to a strip club and inadvertently runs into Alice -- and on, and on, like a snide British version of La Ronde (1950).

The problem with Closer is that Nichols is also a theater director as well as a film director, and he doesn't show that he understands the difference. He pitches the film with the same pace and distance as the play. The characters chatter on in neat, clipped little sound bites that sound very little like real conversation.

Nichols refuses to move in closer to find whispers or silence to replace this, nor does he move back and take a post-modern approach, as did the brilliant Vanya on 42nd Street (1994). He stays right there in the middle where we can't get a grasp on either the play or the movie. His idea of visualization is to find expensive-looking sets to plunk his actors into.

Of course, the more the movie goes on, the less the characters behave like people. At first, we might believe that they're acting out of love or attraction or loneliness or lust. But by the end, it appears that they're all just nasty people who want nothing more than to destroy someone's life for sport. Again, we have a much cleverer precedent for this with Neil LaBute's masterful In the Company of Men (1997).

Writers -- and even performers -- have always credited Nichols for his way with actors, but here only Owen and Portman occasionally come to life. I suspect that they did so despite the script and the direction; their natural, vibrant personalities automatically insert meaningful little pauses and moments into the text. Roberts and Law are more dependent on strong subject matter, and they come across as paper-thin.

The really frustrating thing about Nichols' enduring success and adoration is that his former partner, Elaine May, has proven that she is by far the superior filmmaker and far more harmoniously in tune with real human compassion, emotion and failure. Her The Heartbreak Kid (1972) has more intensity, humor and power than all of Nichols' films combined.

Yet after three masterful films in the early 1970s she emerged as a maverick, and was blackballed from directing after the financial failure of Ishtar (1987). As a consolation prize, she was allowed to write the screenplays for two Nichols films, the despicable The Birdcage and Primary Colors.

We can only imagine what May might have brought to a project like Closer. But Nichols' empty splendor doesn't move me at all.

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