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Larry, Anna, Dan and Alice
A film review of CLOSER by Camus
"Getting married for sex is like buying a 747 for the free peanuts…"
Jeff Foxworthy, Comedian


I'm pretty sure Mr. Foxworthy was being cynical (service charges for large wide bodied aircraft are extensive and come at a cost most cities cannot afford). But we could see it another way if we cue-balled marriage into the 'falling in love' pocket. In that case sex is not love, but a tiny part of the whole shebang; such an unfortunate word under the circumstances. In Closer, two couples' lives play off, into and around each other with consequences all too familiar to anyone who's suffered love's thick fleecy warmth and fiercely sharp teeth.

The sensitive but unworldly, would-be writer Dan (Jude Law) falls for the mysterious young American Alice (Natalie Portman) as she, in turn, falls under a taxi. A year later Dan is powerfully attracted to photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) while living with Alice. Frustrated and in denial while love’s bloom festers, Dan drunkenly indulges in leading any unwary porn punters up cyber-garden paths. This brings dermatologist Larry into initially embarrassing contact with Anna. Unwittingly, Dan has introduced his love to hers… And after that it all gets very messy - chronically, cynically but very entertainingly messy.

Closer, as befits its theatrical roots, is an actor's piece, nothing at all without the presence, charm, lies, hurt and the sexuality of its leads. Each of the four convinces in equal parts that being grown up is simply a case of being taller. Their base emotional responses are triggered by each other in a dizzying number of ways and the games they play reflect the fact that their deepest desires were those for which they still yearned before their 20th birthdays. Each is after 'the other', the one that will emotionally fit snugly, or in the males' case, someone who will fill a void, a tart irony given the physical act of love. Need has never been very high on a priority list for a healthy relationship (to quote Cynthia Heimel who may have quoted someone else for the title of one of her collected essays, "If You Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?") but boy, does this quartet play the trump cards of that nasty little need game.

The most grown up of the four, or at least the one who seems to know herself and her desires better than the rest, is Anna. The artist whose photographic work merits some success is played by Julia Roberts and she plays her damaged, a one-time victim of male physical abuse. Her cynicism towards men in general or specifically men's behaviour doesn't seem to extend to her excluding them from her desires. Roberts plays the character with total and believable realism. She is the surprise of the film simply because of the contrasts. In the neighbouring cinema, in Ocean's 12, she's on screen playing herself for probably over fifteen million dollars (a million a minute perhaps) - and with respect, she's not being pushed by Soderbergh's whimsical star party. Mike Nichols, no slouch with actors, has corkscrewed Roberts' acting core out. She fits Anna like a glove and although she is known for being the darling of Hollywood, her features here are gaunt and sallow. There's not much a make up artist can do about the iconic features (let’s face it, all four of the quartet are babes in one way or another) but Roberts plays hurt convincingly. It's a step (and a turn) in the right direction for someone who wants to exercise and hone her craft and not merely maintain a right to the copyright on Hollywood’s highest female earner. If Roberts continues to be this savvy in her choices, she may well make that transition from 'silver screen icon' to 'golden girl'. She's been at the top of her tree (Mary Reilly notwithstanding) for a long time now. Choosing parts in human dramas is a wise move.

Jude Law's Dan is the little boy of the four. If he wears his heart on his sleeve, every other body part is geared to deceive for what he judges he cannot live without. Blithely believing that lying is just the currency of the world (a cynical line - OK, maybe wisdom), coming from Dan, it feels like a four-year old saying 'fuck'. It's like someone or some movie (not the world or any worldly experience) has taught him this oh-so valuable insight. He is woefully unaware that his first relationship in Closer is built on a whole box of tissue-like untruths. This is something he comes to understand very late in the day. Dan is the female man, the sensitive one to Larry’s more brutish machismo. He's still mercilessly and rather pathetically driven by his sexual identity. His urge for in flight peanuts is strong. His needs seem to be more physical than spiritual (if there is such a thing as a spiritual side to these characters). His demands for honesty are merely slates to be wiped clean to he can slot his emotional attachments and detachments into place before embarking on another relationship. And yet, it's still Jude Law and all the baggage he and we bring to the cinema with us. He's certainly ubiquitous right now and like Roberts, wise to play flawed human beings in dramatic movies. Playing Errol Flynn in The Aviator doesn't count though I'm informed that Flynn was no angel. Ahem. I'm not sure whether Sky Captain’s business merited a sequel but he has the charm, grace and charisma for any romantic, heroic lead. It's just more interesting seeing these pin-up thespians get hung up on real human issues.

The movie's spine is provided by the innocent of the four. Ironically a stripper in a previous time frame, Alice is driven to the same seedy occupation after Dan's rejection. Having just seen Leon: The Director's Cut it's a very odd experience seeing little Natalie Portman blossom into Alice (or 'plane' Jane) in less than a week. Blossom's not the word as she settles down, legs apart, platinum blonde bewigged, and opens a crotch flap for the visual delight of Larry, down on his emotional luck. Maybe blossom is the word if William Randolph Hearst's nickname for his lover's pudendum is anything to go by. 'Rosebud' anyone? The innocent stripper is a staple if not a woeful cliché in movie lore but Portman's energy and sexuality combined with the vulnerability of youth makes her the emotional barometer of Closer. She's the blank canvas who’s made more colourful from her release though as pointed out by Sight and Sound, the final shot does veer towards a rather tacky commercial for perfume. I don't consider Portman's acting duties in George Lucas' woeful prequels as anything like work. Besides, we know she can act. The 'love affair' in Attack of the Clones was execrable. Now if there was a character who deserves to be Leia Organa's (soon to be Princess) mum, then Anna's the gal.

Larry, played by Bond contender of the month and one time King Arthur, Clive Owen, is the John C. Reilly (in Magnolia based in L.A.) of Closer's London. He's the big guy, paralysed by his own emotional dependence and yet cunning and wily enough to shrug off weakness when calculation is required to get his own way. In many ways his is the most sympathetic character though at times, you'd be hard pressed to find anything sympathetic about any of them. The way he plays Jude Law's Dan is nothing short of psychic. It's as if he understands what Dan's needs are where Dan is blind to some obvious pit falls that Larry almost lovingly sets up. On the eve of his split up with his then wife Anna, emotions are running high and Anna makes an offhand remark questioning why sex is so important to men. His reply is telling. "Because I'm a fucking caveman!" he bellows. And he's right. He is. He needs to own the woman he partners, needs to 'use' her sexually. Not sure about the clubbing over the head and dragging by the pigtails into a cave but Owen plays the brutish Larry with some grace. But again, his male urges towards women are several rents in his armour. Faced with Dan's ex, Anna, performing for him (anything goes but no touching), Larry all but breaks down, desperate for honesty and emotional stability. It's only near the end we realise that because of a silly quirk of 'parental taste' fate, just when Anna is honest with Larry, he doesn't see it, doesn't catch the single moment of honesty when it rears up and begs to be recognised.

Then there's the sex.

If there were a fifth character in Closer it would be sex. Not that there is anything too explicit in the film (there is a cyber-chat of intensifying vulgarity that made one patron walk out of the screening I attended shaking his head mumbling about having been "born too early for that sort of thing." I couldn't figure out whether he was relieved or pissed off at missing the internet porno boat). But sex does tend to dominate proceedings. Both Dan and Larry are so focussed on the peanuts or rather who else is where I alone should be and was it better for you with him? that they metaphorically (and in Dan's place) literally miss the plane. The male psyche seems to be hotwired into the sexual arena, much the same way an engine is reliant on its spark plugs - not to wax too metaphorically mechanical. It seems to be the females who can see beyond the orgasm. Closer doesn't offer any alternative difference between the sexes and maybe there is none but an old saying comes to mind after witnessing how each of the characters cut themselves loose from what they believe are restrictive couplings…

"The butcher with the sharpest knife has the kindest heart…"

All four have sharp knives and all four spend a significant time sharpening them on the pumice stone of perceived honesty. But one man's honesty is another woman's lies and today's honesty isn't necessarily tomorrow's. So let's use other words. In Closer, honesty is a term used to describe relative selfishness. And in every way, as we change, we re-define ourselves and hope that others re-define in simpatico or else they suffer the finality of the blade. Free from knives and those that wield them, Alice saunters down a New York street, apparently unconcerned with the adoring male rubber-neckers. She has youth on her side. She will bounce back. Larry, Dan and Anna, however, are still in London, still wedged inside their own worlds, still trying to figure things out.

Maybe they will.


USA 2004
104 mins
Mike Nichols
Cary Brokaw
John Calley
Mike Nichols
Scott Rudin
Patrick Marber (based on his play)
Stephen Goldblatt
John Bloom
Antonia Van Drimmelen
Steven Patrick Morrissey
production design
Tim Hatley
Natalie Portman
Jude Law
Julia Roberts
Clive Owen
Nick Hobbs
review posted
25 February 2005

See all of Camus's reviews