With an anguished wail, Larry (Clive Owen) asks where he can find intimacy. In a private room in a strip club, where the rules say that you can look, but not touch. The stripper’s ex-boyfriend is now romantically involved with Larry’s ex-wife, Anna (Julia Roberts). Does he really want intimacy or does he want revenge? Or does he just want the stripper to bend over and touch the floor?
Probably all of the above. This is a searing story of hurt and betrayal with two men and two women who reach for each other and hurt each other in almost every combination. They may get, as in the movie’s title “Closer,” but do they ever really get close?
Larry is a dermatologist. Anna is a photographer. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper turned waitress turned stripper again. And Dan (Jude Law) is an obituary writer who has written a novel. Larry first talks to Anna as the result of a prank — Dan pretended to be Anna on an online sex chat and set up the meeting. Anna and Larry become a couple and then get married, but she is having an affair with Dan, who is living with Alice, the stripper turned waitress whose life inspired the main character of his novel. One of the portraits in Anna’s art show is the photograph she took of Alice, who had just discovered that Dan was attracted to Anna. And all of this roundelay is delivered in glossy dialogue by glossy people in glossy surroundings.
This film is more clever than wise, and it is not as clever as it thinks it is. Those in the audience who have been angered and betrayed by love might find it validating, but that does not make it insightful. The main characters toss around the L-word a great deal, but there is no evidence that any of them even see each other, much less know or love each other.
Neither Anna nor Alice are really characters; they are somewhere between a fantasy and a narrative convenience. Their only function is to drive the men crazy, mostly by just being gorgeous and arbitrary.
The center of the movie is the relationship between the two men. Larry and Dan send instant messages to each other in an anonymous sex chat room, Dan pretending to be a woman. Their connections with the women in their lives have more to do with the struggle between the men over power and territory than with knowing or caring for Anna and Alice. Larry demands to know Alice’s real name, but neither he nor Dan ask her for any details about her past or preferences or aspirations.
The script has some snappy lines and Nichols keeps guessing by not telling us how much time has passed between the encounters. Portman is dazzling to watch. Owen and Law do well (those who saw Law cry in the very different I Heart Huckabee’s will see his range when Dan cries here). But this is not the best use of Roberts’ considerable talents; it may be that Nichols was relying more on the shock value of hearing America’s sweetheart speak about oral sex in explicit terms than on her ability to convey a superficially conceived character. It’s always fun to watch pretty people say clever things, but for all its knowing banter about truth and lies and love, like its characters, it is a little too much in love with itself, and no wiser or happier when it’s over.
Parents should know that this movie is filled with extremely adult material, with exceptionally explicit sexual references, including adultery and oral sex. There are scenes in a strip club. Characters drink, smoke, and use very strong, explicit, and graphic language. There are tense and upsetting scenes of jealousy, anger, and betrayal.
Families who see this movie should talk about what the characters were really looking for. What did playwright/screenwriter Patrick Marber want to show us with the occupations of the four characters? What do we learn from the name on Alice’s passport? Why do two different people say “Hello, stranger?” Were Dan and Anna using Alice by writing the novel and taking her photo? They may also want to talk about how genuine trust and intimacy are established.
Families who appreciate this movie will also like Carnal Knowledge, also directed by Nichols, and Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont, two different movie versions of the epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos.