Closer But No Cigar

[WARNING: For those who haven’t seen the film Closer, this post contains spoilers.]

I had been urged by certain individuals, knowing of my own auctorial penchant for stylized dialogue, to see Closer, a film directed by Mike Nichols and written by Patrick Marber (from his own play). They told me that this film contained the magic code for relationships. They told me that the film contained literate and human moments that, as Roger Ebert wrote, were “refreshing in a time when literate and evocative speech has been devalued in the movies.” Having now viewed the film, I was disappointed to learn that Closer is something of a sham — the intellectual equivalent of reading a People puff piece. And I am left wondering if cinema has reached a point where a film like Closer, which suggests that all humans enter relationships with the idea of committing immature discretions without the filmmakers giving us time to explore the motivations behind such behavior, is the best that Hollywood can do.

Granted, the film is not without interest. It is well-directed. It looks good (particularly during a photographic exhibition). It is, in my view, something of a predictable train wreck to experience, but it does offer a bit of structural prowess in chronicling a four year period. Julia Roberts acts the best that she can, using her trademark doe-eyed gaze to gain not sympathy from the audience, but a sense of self-loathing. Clive Owen is sensational. Jude Law is passable. If there is a weak spot among the thespic quartet, it is likely Natalie Portman, who comes across more like a child rather than a mixed up woman in her her mid-twenties. Her “Thank yous” during a melodramatic strip club scene might have easily been uttered by a parakeet savant. Her mad cooing for Owen simply cannot be believed because it lacks nuanced vernacular.

I suspect it is Marber who is at fault here. (And Marber should know better, given that he wrote the play when he was just over the other side of thirty and should have been close enough to his twenties to understand the visceral and often confused miasma of youth.) When “intelligent” dialogue is motivated by behavior expressed through stilted wit, rather than the decidedly unintelligent patina of emotional turmoil, which often involves a certain inability to articulate, why opt for the clever line? Case in point:

LARRY: You’re seeing him now? Since when?
ANNA: Since my opening last year. I’m disgusting.
LARRY: You’re phenomenal. You’re so clever. Why did you marry me?
ANNA: I stopped seeing him. I wanted us to work.
LARRY: Why did you tell me you wanted children?
ANNA: Because I did.
LARRY: And now you want children with him?
ANNA: Yes, I don’t know.
LARRY: But we’re happy, aren’t we? You’re going to stay here and live with him?
ANNA: You can stay here if you want.
LARRY: Oh, look, I don’t give a fuck about the spoils.

“I don’t give a fuck about the spoils.” While there’s something to be said for a witty aphorism uttered during a tumultuous moment, notice the complete lack of “ums” and “uhs” during this pivotal development point. Notice how this preposterous line comes after the revelation that Anna, who is married to Larry, has slept with Dan. Notice how Barber lacks the courage to make Larry reduced to a ball of clay. He must be clever! Instead of expressing any kind of meaningful confusion, he must utter lines in complete sentences. And so must Anna (“Because I did.”). Interrogation is to be expected from a jealous character during such an pivotal interruption, but there is nothing here in the dialogue which suggests or even insinuates Larry’s sense of remorse or following up on the news that Larry has just confessed that he has slept with a prostitute. This emotional release comes later, timed for a near pre-programmed audience response, when Larry weeps upon Anna’s shoulder. Even more disheartening, this is dialogue, believe it or not, uttered by characters in their mid-thirties.

Clearly, this is a case of Nichols wanting to revisit Carnal Knowledge/Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory. But Marber is neither Jules Feiffer nor Edward Albee (or even Ernest Lehman). Even a line like “Answer me, you ball-busting, castrating, son of a cunt bitch,” a tone somewhat dated a mere thirty-five years later, carries a jealous conviction.

The problem is that Closer lacks the courage to throw itself over the edge and to throw us, as a result, into the choppy waters of infidelity. It confuses its own self-justifying intelligence for joie de vivre (or, in this case, misère de vivre). Most importantly, it fails to offer us a behavioral hint for why the characters commit the indiscretions they do. And without that pivotal motivation, or some soupcon of emotional release, why then should we be invested in the characters?


  1. I liked the film – I agree that Portman was a weak link. The whole “clever” stuff was a little bit too perfect. Still, I don’t know that it needed to show any motivation. I think the point was that people don’t even understand why they stray, they just do it. In real life, cheaters can never fully explain their motivation. It’s usually some deep-rooted thing that the movie really wasn’t set up to explore.

  2. Susan,
    I think you’re being far too kind with your “motivation-is-a-universal-mystery-in-betrayal” clause.
    I’m also an embarrassingly latecomer to “Closer” here – and felt if you turned the characters sideways, you’d see they were propped up with wire supports.
    I found it oddly exhausting serving as the audience for the dialogue. I felt there was often no point – beyond its brittle cleverness – unless I was there to appreciate it.
    Winging this slightly – but isn’t part of the brilliance of “Virginia Woolf” and even “Look Back in Anger” that the contrived dialogue is so often showing off for other characters on stage – as well as for the audience?
    (I did rather enjoy Portman’s coldly girlish “thank yous” in the porno scene, though.)

  3. Portman had her moments, and to say she’s a weak link isn’t too much of a slam, because everyone else did so good. Maybe I’m being too kind, but I saw it as a character study about self-absorbed people. They don’t really care how they make other people feel. They thrive off drama. They love it so much that they labor over each sentence like they were living in a soap opera. They don’t really need a reason to cheat, other than it will create more drama in their life. If the filmmakers’ intent was to make a movie about real people, then they failed miserably.

  4. I didn’t think much of it either. As others have said, I never got the sense that we were dealing with anything like real people in this film. And, while Natalie Portman seemed out of her depth, I don’t think she was all that much worse than Julia Roberts, say, and the problem wasn’t the acting to begin with.

    (Although, fanboy lasciviousness aside, I do think Portman’s striptease scene made even less sense given that she kept her clothes on — The point of that scene — as well as the whole enterprise — seemed to be that, even when completely exposed to Clive Owen’s character, Portman is still maddeningly inscrutable and hiding behind veils and masks…closer in fact might as well be farther away. Then again, given the film turned out to be such a clunker, I can totally understand Portman’s decision.)

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