Starring: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen
Directed by: Mike Nichols
I avoided seeing this movie when it first came out, because movies about infidelity really aren’t my thing. I was initially interested in seeing it anyway, based on the Oscar buzz for Natalie Portman and Clive Owen (who were each nominated for supporting roles), and the soundtrack. But then I heard it featured just the sort of thing I hate about this sort of movie, and skipped it.
Since then, it keeps popping up on Movie Central HD, trying to convince me to watch it anyway, since its free and it only takes me pushing a few buttons on my DVR. So I recorded it. Then deleted it for memory space without watching. Then recorded it again… and deleted it. This happened three or four times, so I figured I may as well just watch it already so I can at least stop recording it so often.
Turns out, I should have just trusted my initial instincts and skipped it altogether. Not that watching Closer was a complete waste of time, as I can now validate the opinion I had of what the movie might be. It was as expected, a movie about pretty but wretched people doing horrible things to each other, all the while delivering tortured monologues in a fashion that no person on earth would ever utter. It’s supposed to be some ultra-mature telling of relationships and the things people do behind closed doors, but I found the whole exercise kinda silly.
A big reason for the film’s awkwardness comes from the fact that it is adapted from a stage play from Patrick Marber, who also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation. The problem is that techniques and conceits that work for the stage don’t always translate to the big screen. Audiences are impressed by how plays work around the limitations of telling a story in a static environment, with a limited cast. Movies do not have these constraints, so when they’re imposed on a film, as they are in Mike Nichols‘ movie, it feels awkward and artificial. Too often, Nichols settles for static shots of two people talking, who pace around as though they are on stage. Unlike a stage director, the movie director gets to control the eye of the audience, but too often Nichols pulls the camera back to reveal the stage, making it feel empty in the process.
Worse than the blocking, the dialogue is the sort of monologue-heavy piece one expects from the stage, but feels forced in movies. More can be left unsaid when a director can control what can be seen, but in Closer, nothing is left unsaid. The characters unload their bile on each other wrapped in extravagant language, eschewing subtlety for verbosity.
To the extent that they can get past the static photography and awkward dialogue, the four principle actors all give solid performances. Other than a throw away line of dialogue from a cabbie or customs agent, the four characters are the only ones to have dialogue, so it’s necessary for the actors to acquit themselves well. Jude Law gives the weakest performance, failing to draw any sympathy or conflict to a character that I get the sense is supposed to feel conflicted and sympathetic at times. Julia Roberts is good, proving that she has a place making more mature movies, as long as she isn’t the centrepiece. Natalie Portman gives the movie its only spark, in a performance that wasn’t as good as the hype that surrounded it, but still fairly decent amongst the rest of her resume. Plus, she’s in various degrees of undress throughout the movie, which was a highlight. Clive Owen is easily the best performer in the movie (he originally played Law’s role in the stage play), playing a very different character than his usual suave, elegant role. This time out, Owen plays a boor of a man, confrontational and raunchy, bringing some fire to an otherwise bloodless movie.
Which brings me to my biggest complaint of Closer: for a movie that purportedly deals with love, sex, deceit, and betrayal, the whole thing feels sterile. Portman gives it a bit of a spark, and Owen gives a bit of fire, but for the most part, the whole thing feels empty. The characters don’t deliver any warmth, passion, empathy, or desire. They go on and on with snappy dialogue about how they feel, but they never act like they feel anything at all. A movie that should feel like a raw nerve instead feels as dispassionate as a dissertation on infidelity.