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And Yet So Far Away

"Flawlessly lucid"; "viciously insightful"; "quietly devastating"; "emotionally honest and psychologically dense"; "dares speak the truth about modern adult relationships." Those are a few of the phrases that were used to describe the movie Closer when it arrived in theaters late last year. Oddly, as best as I can tell, the following terms were absent from discussion of the film: "ridiculous"; "unmoored from reality"; "emotionally preposterous"; "unintentionally hilarious."

Closer, released on video today, is not a bad movie--or rather it is not merely bad. It's flamboyantly bad, bad in a way that can't help but be fascinating and even entertaining. It's well-enough executed, boasting a couple of good performances and one great one, and it's pleasant to look at. But it's also aggressively, irretrievably silly, a potty-mouthed fantasy that somehow mistakes itself for a fearless excavation of the dark recesses of the human soul, American Pie as reimagined by Neil LaBute.

Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, Closer follows two London couples who meet, fall in love, fall out of love, swap partners, and swap back again, in the process wounding one another in all the ways of which human beings are capable. Scratch that: The wounding is all pretty much of a single variety, specifically, being unfaithful to your (presumed) loved one and then describing the infidelity to him or her in excruciating detail. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because similar territory was plowed just a few months earlier in We Don't Live Here Anymore, a movie that shared Closer's ludicrous belief that displaying unremitting cruelty is somehow the same thing as telling the truth. (You can read my review here.) But if the characters in the former film seemed transplanted from another decade, the characters in Closer seem transplanted from another planet. It's not just that they behave irrationally (though they do), they behave according to no recognizable set of human principles.

Take Dan, played by Jude Law. When we first meet him at the beginning of the film, he's a sweet, bespectacled, romantically timid obituary writer (think Hugh Grant in Notting Hill) who unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful young American named Alice (Natalie Portman) after she is hit by a car. The movie then flashes forward one year. Dan has just completed a sexually provocative novel (unmentioned in the first scene) and is being photographed for the book jacket by another beautiful American, Anna (Julia Roberts). Gone are his glasses, and with them any sign of his earlier demeanor: He's now smooth and predatory (think Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones's Diary), putting the moves on Anna despite the fact that he now lives with Alice, who will arrive at the studio to meet him at any moment. About the only thing these two Dans have in common is Jude Law's face.

Having stolen a kiss from Anna but otherwise had his advances rebuffed (for the time being at least), Dan decides to play an unpleasant trick on her. He goes into an anonymous sex chat room on the Internet, where he encounters a deviant dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). Pretending to be Anna, Dan engages Larry in an X-rated dialogue and proposes a sexual assignation at a location he knows the elusive lady to frequent.

Onstage, this scene was apparently a showstopper, with Dan and Larry's raunchy exchange projected on the wall behind them. Onscreen, shorn of this gimmick, it's a strong contender for the silliest scene in a "serious" movie in the last 25 years. I'll say this once: If you are a male over the age of ten who believes that beautiful women get online to earnestly tell strange men "I love COCK" and "sit on my face, fuckboy," then you should turn your computer off right now and never turn it on again. I mean it.

Larry, having failed to receive my exceptional advice, goes to meet Anna, and finds her somewhat taken aback when he refers to her as a "cum-hungry slut." Anna, intuiting that this was all a prank set up by Dan, decides to spend the afternoon with Larry. Why? Because it's her birthday, and what better way to spend it than with a stranger about whom she knows nothing other than that he frequents pornographic websites in search of rough, anonymous sex?

In no time--literally, the film having taken another of its leaps forward--Larry and Anna are a couple, hosting a museum exhibit of her photos. Dan and Alice show up, and the former again woos Anna, whose defenses appear to be weakening. By our next temporal jump, Anna and Dan have been secret lovers for a year, though she has not allowed this detail to keep her from marrying Larry in the interim. When Dan breaks news of the affair to Alice, she cries; when Anna breaks it to Larry, he demands that she describe the flavor of Dan's ejaculate. "Like yours," she answers, "only sweeter." (Poor Julia, she never had such a filthy mouth back when she played a prostitute.)

From this point, the characters will ping-pong back and forth across the behavioral spectrum, swapping turns as villains and victims, masters and slaves. The innocent will turn out to be jaded and the jaded revealed to be innocent. I'll leave the details to the curious, except to warn of a particularly laughable scene in which Larry encounters Alice at a strip club--did I fail to mention that lovely, sweet, decent Alice is also a stripper?--to swap heartbreak stories and some more graphic sex talk. "I love everything about you that hurts," Larry confesses, moments before demanding that she drop trou, turn around, and bend over, "for my viewing pleasure."

Such ostentatious melodrama may have worked on stage, where emotional fireworks are sometimes the price of reaching people in the back rows. But the up-close medium of film requires either more subdued, realistic portrayals or an explicit admission of theatricality. What Closer needed was a director who would take it in the latter direction, recognizing that it bore no resemblance to the reality of urban romance and embracing its B-movie sleaziness. What it got instead was Mike Nichols, a director whose sense of his own cinematic daring has now outlived said daring by a few decades. Although Closer benefits from Nichols's technical command--it is inarguably a "well-made" film--it is very nearly sunk by the same self-admiring earnestness he displayed with the HBO miniseries Angels in America, another corny, out-of-date project that mistook itself for cutting edge.

That Closer manages to stay afloat, at least some of the time, is a testament to its cast. As Dan, Law digs a little deeper than he did in his dozen-odd other 2004 performances, almost finding a thread that can tie together his character's alternating recessive and assertive selves. Roberts gives a low-key, committed performance as Anna, although at times it's unclear what she's committed to. While playwright Marber makes the motivations of his male characters all too evident--varying combinations of sexual desire, sexual jealousy, sexual neediness, and sexual one-upsmanship--he seems at a loss as to why his ladies do what they do, eventually settling for the catchall explanations that Anna is a "depressive" and Alice is an impulsively self-reinventing mystery woman. (His male-centric lens is evident in a Larry line that appeared in the trailer but not the film itself: "You women don't understand the territory. Because you are the territory.")

But the great pleasure of the film, the best if not only reason to see it, is Clive Owen. He alone seems to grasp his character's fundamental ridiculousness, and he throws himself into the role with carnivorous gusto. With his big head and big hands, Owen physically dominates every scene he is in. His Larry is by turns ferocious and tender, meek and mighty, a Noble Savage for the telecommunications age. For a while now, Owen has been talked about as a possible heir to the throne of James Bond--a role in which he'd be magnificent, if only the franchise weren't some forty years removed from making films worthy of him. While Closer may not have won him an Oscar last month, his nomination was a suitable announcement of his arrival as an actor.

For all the accolades, the same cannot be said of Natalie Portman, who is the one broken link in Closer's sexual daisy chain. The failure is not entirely her fault: Alice, like Anna, is a character whose motivations are not only largely unknown but by design unknowable, a walking argument for the inscrutability of womanhood. Moreover, it's hard to shake the impression that whoever came up with the idea of casting luminous china-doll Portman in the role of world-weary stripper has never actually seen the inside of a gentleman's club.

But Portman's disappointment extends beyond the particulars of the role. Early in her career, when she played child characters (The Professional, Beautiful Girls), she seemed old beyond her years. But somehow as she's graduated to adult roles she seems ever more like a child, as though she's shrinking before our eyes. (When, early in Closer, she jokingly describes herself as a "waif," the comment strikes a little too close to the mark.) Portman's tiny stature and delicate features contribute to this impression, of course, but there's more to it than that. As her star has ascended she's seemed somehow less and less touched by real life. For a while it was possible to put this off on her turn as George Lucas's child-queen. But in Closer, as in Garden State (and even her small role in Cold Mountain), there's something disconcertingly girlish about her. She's a little too unsure of herself and eager to please, like a politician's good-girl daughter who's clever enough to recognize she's been coddled but not selfish enough to feel she deserves it. If Portman is to grow as an actress she will have to indulge herself more, forego her tentativeness and decency, and take what she wants without apology.

Closer would have been well-served had it done the same. For a movie so ardently committed to pushing the envelope, it ends rather timidly. Selfishness and deceit are punished; generosity and truthfulness are rewarded, at least relatively speaking. The final dramatic act, the slapping of a woman whom we imagine has been slapped before, is treated as a shocking, unforgivable transgression--this, by a film that has spent the previous 90 minutes engineering vicious sexual betrayals and congratulating itself on its bleak vision of the world. At Anna's photography opening, Alice describes the pictures as "a lie ... a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully." Closer is that, and less: a lie that in the end doesn't even have the conviction of its own malice.

The Home Movies List:
Cruel Endings

    The Third Man (1949). The last scene--the empty road, the falling leaves,
    Joseph Cotton leaning against a fence as Alida Valli walks past--is among
    the most bleakly beautiful of all time. Incredibly, in Graham Greene's
    original script, it played the other way, with Valli taking Cotton's arm.
    Thank goodness director Carol Reed had the sense to see that this story
    couldn't possibly end happily.

    The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Have the story and the telling
    ever been more wonderfully at odds than in Jacques Demy's
    masterpiece, a jaded humanist fable filled with color and music? Like
    Reed, Demy was wise enough to know that the ending audiences
    wanted was not one he could give them.

    Get Carter (1971). A lean, vicious little film starring Michael Caine as a
    hoodlum who seeks vengeance for his brother's death and finds a great
    deal of it. Intoxicatingly unpleasant.

    Silence of the Lambs (1991). Unique in this list, in that the filmmakers
    seemed oddly oblivious to the bitterness of its conclusion. After all the
    earnest urgency with which Clarice Starling sought Buffalo Bill, we're
    meant to think it funny at the end that a far more frightening monster
    has escaped.

    The Last Seduction (1994). Crueler even than the ending of the film is
    that Linda Fiorentino--who must have known, even then, that this was
    the role of her lifetime--was deemed ineligible for Oscar consideration
    thanks to the film's debut on HBO.

Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.