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Love Knot

'Closer' Dissects The Untidiness Of Relationships

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page C01

When the old relationship heads south, nothing hurts more.

So why is "Closer," about four people who spend two hours setting speed records as they frickin' sprint south, so much fun?

Clive Owen as Larry and Natalie Portman as Alice are in a tangle of relationships with another couple in the Mike Nichols film. (Stephen Goldblatt -- Columbia Pictures)

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The answer is that although none of the characters is noble or heroic or selfless or particularly disciplined, all are bright, clever, ironic, self-aware. They say -- well, actually screenwriter Patrick Marber, as abetted by director Mike Nichols, says -- smart things, funny things, clever things, ugly things, self-delusional things but always amusing things. If you're the sort of person who laughs at funerals, train wrecks, earnest political documentaries and stories about the rape of nature, you'll love "Closer."

It's a kind of round-robin of sexual opportunism, shattered loyalties and frank talk, all in a key of mordant irony as driven by quips so lashing and perfect that only a true misanthrope could come up with them. Oscar Wilde, meet Edward Albee and Larry David; that's what it feels like.

In this corner is Dan (Jude Law), obit writer, novelist and casually handsome popinjay-about-town. In that corner is Alice (Natalie Portman), waif, stripper, random particle, sexual healer, neediest case. In still another corner is Anna (Julia Roberts), artsy photographer, lonely mid-thirties beauty, empty success, whose arch photos document the spiritual emptiness of most lives. And in the fourth corner is Larry (Clive Owen), dermatologist, Internet lurker, sailor on perpetual three-day liberty, guilty party and passionate lover.

Marber, who also wrote the play the film is based upon, isn't exactly interested in realism. He has a lot of trouble conjuring ways to get his folks together and falls too easily into an old-movie trope called the "cute meet." By contrast, in another recent study of adultery among a gang of four, "We Don't Live Here Anymore," director John Curran had the advantage of a single setting (a liberal arts college) and a single department (creative writing), which kept all the naughty ducks in a row. Here, the place is London and the ducks are all over the damned place.

I didn't believe, for example, the method by which Larry and Anna hook up. He's reeled into the situation by Dan, posing as a woman in an Internet chat room. Dan, talking dirty in cyberspace, induces poor horn dog Larry into a tryst at an aquarium, where he knows Anna will be (he is mad at Anna for rejecting him). Larry shows up and announces to Anna that he's, you know, the guy from Let's-do-it-now.com who was interested in --------, followed by --------, with ------- as an encore. Hmm, is there a woman on this Earth who, so approached, wouldn't run to the nearest cop, or pull out either her Mace or her .44 special? Roberts's Anna decides to date him.

The meeting between Dan and Alice is less preposterous but more unlikely. She -- an American new to London -- looks left instead of right while stepping into the street and is knocked skyward by a taxi. But she's just -- movie cliche -- "knocked out" and comes to in Dan's (Jude Law's) arms; he was fortuitously walking by. Hmm, I think you could get hit by a thousand London cabs, and assuming you survived 20 or so of the collisions, you'd run into a beautiful creature like Jude Law about never.

But that's really a small thing. The big thing is the randomness of impulse and their utter inability to control it. If once argued that the heart is a foul rag and bone shop, Marber and Nichols counter that it's a rabbit hutch during the rut. Everybody's doing it, doing it, doing it.

Dan, already with Alice, comes on to Anna and is turned down. Some months later, after she's with Larry, Dan comes on again and Anna says "yes." Meanwhile, Larry is sporting with prostitutes in New York, and when Anna leaves him for Dan, he looks up Alice (dumped by Dan for Anna) in a strip club. Nichols leaves ambiguous what happens to them. But then Larry tries desperately to get Anna back, and at a certain point Dan tries desperately to get Alice back. The hormonal pull in this movie may loosen your fillings.

Photographed brilliantly by old pro Stephen Goldblatt, it's full of chilly scenes in the London winter, a sense of cold blue light, puffs of breath and slush on the streets. Possibly it's the briskness that keeps driving these people into each other's beds. But the movie -- though old-fashioned in its materials, as it posits love under all the sex -- is edgily postmodernist in its execution. For one thing, it's like a Jules Feiffer cartoon (Nichols, remember, did a similar picture, "Carnal Knowledge," from a Feiffer script) in that the four are pretty much alone in the world, their relationships filling every nook and cranny of the universe. It's like they're talking heads in Feiffer's Village Voice comic strip circa1963; where's schlumphy Bernard Mergendeiler when you need him? After Feiffer, their working lives are barely sketched, society is barely noted. They have no politics, no hobbies, no eccentricities; they are their sex lives, nothing more, nothing less.

Nichols has fun with chronology, too. He keeps spurting ahead in time, but we're never quite sure where we are in a new scene until we realize halfway through that it's not the next hour, it's the next year. But he'll also spurt backward in time -- the overall implication being that in love and sex, there is no time -- so you're always guessing. He holds off on cues to temporal location, so you're on your toes, seeking clues, finally fitting the pieces together. It's a bracingly adult way to tell a story and it presumes a certain level of intelligence and attention from a movie-savvy audience.

Then there's beauty. Lord, these kids are lookers, and I'm talking about the guys! The women: Has Julia Roberts ever looked more beautiful, yet more tragic? (Cate Blanchett was to play this role when pregnancy interrupted. With her it would have been a different, less good film; Blanchett is too intellectual for the emotion-driven Anna.) Goldblatt lights Roberts from above in serene glow -- she's like a kabuki mask, solemn, almost ceremonial, signifying the seriousness of wounds delivered in matrimonial combat. As for the elfin Portman, it's far and away the best performance of the adult portion of her career. Gone is that kid-genius preciousness; she seems like someone abused by men and self almost to the breaking point.

"Closer," as a title, tells only half the story that the movie does. It's about getting closer, but the hurting part is about getting farther.

Closer (103 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely brutal sexual language and sexual innuendo, and some nudity.

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