‘Closer’ not too cuddly

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 2, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

‘Closer” the movie is based on “Closer” the stage play, a four-person round robin on the subject of attraction, jealousy and hatred. While most movies adapted from plays try to disguise their origins, “Closer” barely lifts a finger in that direction.

The film is obsessively focused on its four people. But we do not see their intertwined relationships; instead, playwright-screenwriter Patrick Marber has elected to show us only the highs and lows, the wooings and breakups.

“Closer” 2 – stars

Tough love: Four people in London are caught in a venomous round robin, making each other miserable. The movie emphasizes, to a numbing degree, the harsher aspects of romance, which leaves the actors: Julia Roberts and Jude Law are vague, but Natalie Portman and especially Clive Owen are sharp.

Rated: R rating is for language, subject matter.

Now showing: Grand, Guild 45th, Meridian 16

It turns out there are few highs, but many lows. The opening sequences introduce us to Dan (Jude Law), a journalist who wants to be a novelist. He picks up a young American, Alice (Natalie Portman), who’s new to London.

In the next scene, Dan is seen flirting with a photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts). We realize that a year has passed since the first scene, and that Dan is living with Alice. That’s the way the movie will unfold – in intense scenes with large gaps of time between them.

The fourth character, a doctor named Larry (Clive Owen), meets Anna through a complicated ruse too difficult to explain (and too amusing to spoil). Over the course of the next couple of years, these four people mess up each other’s lives in ways guaranteed to make them all miserable.

In adapting this for the screen, Marber and the esteemed director Mike Nichols (whose most recent project was the HBO “Angels in America”) haven’t “opened out” the play. “Closer” has that strange quality of including other characters as extras but not letting them do or say anything.

This increases the sense of unreality about the material, which is perhaps what the filmmakers wanted. It’s also suffocating. In selecting the most devious and cutthroat moments of human interaction, Marber has cut out the joys and the initial sexual attraction.

It’s like watching a political campaign or a wrestling match. These people – especially the men – can’t merely win. They must destroy their opponents.

I wonder if Nichols saw this mostly as an acting exercise. Julia Roberts makes a bid to ditch her America’s Sweetheart persona, and has a few moments that burn. But both she and Jude Law are vague, their characters not as focused as the other duo.

Natalie Portman’s glittering brown eyes have always suggested a level of seriousness, even in her teen roles (though not, perhaps, in the stiffness of the “Star Wars” enterprise). She brings that gravity to this role, although it’s not easy to buy her as a stripper – Alice’s sideline.

Best of the bunch is Clive Owen, who recently essayed the title role in “King Arthur,” as an absolute rotter. He holds nothing back, and the actor’s blend of charm and venom pollutes everything around him.

“Closer” is admirably challenging, especially considering the star power involved. I wish I liked it more, but it’s a tough movie to get next to.

Julia Roberts and Jude Law in “Closer.”

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