Mike Nichols's new film Closer is a boiling pot of lust, mistrust and double-dealing that might well be taken for outright soap opera -- or, in quite a few places, soft-core porn -- were it not for the sophisticated gleam of its well-heeled London desperadoes and the vicious dazzle of its dialogue. Adapted from a bitterly funny 1997 play by the fluent British playwright and former stand-up comic Patrick Marber, this wallow in contemporary bad behavior is full of intellectual stimulation as well as low, dark pleasures -- Carnal Knowledge redux! So every time you catch yourself in a guilty thrill (a lewd, barking quarrel about fellatio, for instance), the movie lets you off the hook because it's so damn smart. Wet Sluts in Heat meets English Lit 301.
Unlike the midday atrocities of the boob tube, Closer is also beautifully acted by a quartet of perfectly chosen players. In Nichols's able hands, delicate beauty Natalie Portman (last seen in Garden State), matinee idol Jude Law and the brooding lead of Croupier, Clive Owen, make for fascinating combatants in an all-out war where sex is the ultimate weapon. The surprise is Julia Roberts, who's always been more movie star than actress, more luscious mouth than mind. She finally shows something undeniably real here as a self-absorbed portrait photographer with a gift for emotional destruction. Roberts's Anna, who uses her obsession with truth to bludgeon the men in her life (and herself), looks and feels like her first really authentic character. That unworthy Oscar-winner Erin Brockovich might do well to have a look.
Moviegoers who think drama is disabled by sheer nastiness probably won't enjoy the ironically titled Closer very much, because each of the needy, bed-swapping urban savages we meet here has his or her own talent for cruelty -- although some are more adept than others. Portman's Alice is a gorgeous, calculating waif recently transplanted from New York, where she apparently worked as a stripper until some unnamed crisis drove her across the Atlantic. Literally by accident, she collides with Dan (Law), a handsome but grotesquely insecure obituary writer (there's a gig for you) who ransacks Alice's life to furnish a steamy but unsuccessful novel. En route to the remainders bin, Dan submits to a photo shoot in Anna's fashionable loft, promptly falls for her and declares his life ruined when she initially spurns him. Dan's lying misadventure in a pornographic chat room unwittingly draws in character No. 4, who may be the most odious of the bunch. Larry (Owen) is a dermatologist who makes your skin crawl, whose taste for degradation knows no bounds. This Neanderthal MD's notion of the human heart? It's "a fist wrapped in blood."
Thus do four people largely untroubled by conscience or consequence set out to satisfy their appetites, which is certainly not to be confused with looking for love. Driven by self-interest and animal instinct, they are lost souls clawing their way through hell, not to mention one another's psyches. In their characters' erotic flailings, Nichols and Marber see not just obsession but imprisonment. This is a relentlessly sexy movie -- the strip-club scene in which a blond-wigged Alice torments the desperate Larry with her naked detachment is a masterpiece of cold heat -- but it might also be monumentally depressing if not for the playwright's scathing humor and the veteran director's impeccable manipulation of it.
Nichols is celebrated these days as the creator of the groundbreaking HBO series Angels in America and Wit, but he's not the new kid on the block. As he did so ably four decades ago in the movie version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he tempers Marber's verbal lacerations with impeccably timed wisecracks -- although George and Martha might be taken aback by such raw candor. Nichols doesn't show us Closer's ever-shifting relationships in their entirety (we get only the starts and finishes of Anna-with-Larry or Larry-with-Alice or Anna-with-Dan), but he has a gift for cutting into their essence, which is to say for finding the comic delusions and dark deceptions inside. The closest thing to a warm-blooded human being we meet here is Portman's strategically armored Alice, whose identity remains always in question, but who must summon her own aggression to survive. That Nichols and Marber finally give her a break is a welcome respite from the dark. Somebody has to get a life.
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Unhappy with everything this side of Donald Duck, neocons who dare to watch this disturbing, bleakly funny meditation on sexual Darwinism will see another sign that the apocalypse is upon us. In the end, broader minds may also find themselves wearied and worn, as if they've been in a bar fight or at least inundated by more bad news from Fallujah. But Nichols, Marber and this terrific cast refuse to let up, and that is to be admired: This relentless brawl among emotional cripples has a bruising authenticity that most movies cannot dream of.