Closer (Review)

Closer
(8 out of 10)
Director: Mike Nichols
Starring: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Clive Owen

Pre-Viewing Comments

If you like good acting and good dialogue, you would like to see this film. (I’ll be more specific later for those who want me to be.) All four actors are legitimate candidates for an Academy Award. While I initially found the characters unappealing and the story and meaning of the film unclear, the acting and dialogue made the film easy and enjoyable to watch.

The film is based on a play, and it feels like one, too. So prominent is the dialogue that you feel like the screenwriter is a character in the film. This is acceptable, even appealing, if the writing witty, poetic or intelligentóeven if it is not natural or realistic. Itís even better when the dialogue feels like good sparing or well-choreographed dance between the characters. In Mitchell’s review of Sideways, he talked about liking character driven films with good dialogue. Well, here’s another film like that, although I believe the dialogue is more consistently good. Think of the best conversations in Sideways, except spread them out over the entire film with all the characters. The dialogue is not as metaphorical, but itís still very good. That’s the type of dialogue in Closer. I liked the back-and-forth between the actors, communicating hidden meanings that are clear to everyone. All four actors do a good job of delivering their lines; I especially liked the actor’s facial expressions as they reacted to other characters. Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman really impressed me.

To get a sense of the type of movie youíre in for, think of the movie Dangerous Liaisons, except add another couple into the dynamic and you have a rough idea of what youíre in for. Like Dangerous Liaisons, Closer is dark tale with good acting and dialogue. By the way, I have seen the film classified as a comedy-drama, and I found the film too dark to be funny. Itís like calling Dangerous Liaisons a comedy. Iíve also heard the film compared to other Nicholsí films like Carnal Knowledge, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Neil LaButeís In the Company of Men, and Your Friends and Neighbors.

Nichols also has some interesting direction of the film, as the scenes jump between long stretches of time. Creating continuity that the audience will accept and understand is no small feat. In addition, leaving these large gaps invites the audiencesí imagination and participation of the understanding of the film. The audience has to fill in the gaps based on the things we do see on the screen. This will no doubt lead to many different interpretations of the characters, motivations and the movie as a whole.

I liked the film for all of these reasons, and that’s the basis for my score. However, Iím not as satisfied with the meaning of the film. Again, if character driven films with good acting and dialogue are enough of a reason for you to really like your film, and you’re in the mood for a dark, grown-up film about relationships, then this film is for you.

Post-Viewing Comments

Perhaps reading into the taglines for insights into the film is not so wise. Taglines usually reveal more about marketing than the meaning of the film, but in this case, I believe using the taglines as keys to understanding the film is a fruitful approach.

Let’s start with the tagline we see on most posters: ìIf you believe in love at first sight, you always keep looking.î This is a really effective tagline because of the double-meaning of the line. The initial meaning will draw people to the film, while the second one reveals a darker and truer insight into the film (which would turn them off if they knew it).

The first and initial interpretation of the tagline indicates a typical Hollywood romance. The poster has beautiful head-shots of Julia Roberts, the queen of Hollywood romance; Jude Law, the new pretty boy; Clive Owen, the British Mel Gibson; and Natalie Portman, the reigning ingÈnue. Within this context and without knowing anything about the film the tagline conveys hope and romance. The characters believe in romance, and so they keep looking for that person to fall in love with.

After watching the film, the tagline now takes on a second and different meaning: If you believe relationships are about love at first sight, then you will never be able to establish a meaningful, long-term relationship. Love at first sight is something instantaneous and exhilarating, often charged with an electric sexuality. Mature, long-term relationships, on the other hand, take time. They are less glamorous; requiring unromantic moments, just as much as the spectacular moments. For the characters in the film, ìLove at first sightî is the end whereas in a mature relationship it is just the beginningóand not a very good basis for a meaningful relationship. If you base your understanding of relationships on love at first sight, you will put too much emphasis on appearances and instant chemistry and not enough emphasis on more mundane, but essential aspects of relationships, things like trust, respect, and honesty. You will always look for love, instead of nurturing it. The phrase ìlooking for loveî takes on a new and less positive meaning. Meaningful relationships are not based on looks or looking, but they are based on things you cannot see; they are based on the way you treat each other over time. A deep romantic love is not an ìobjectî that can be looked for or seen. Rather, it is something achieved by acts born of out of respect, kindness, and selflessness. It is based on the parts of person you like that you cannot see. In this way, the film repudiates the Hollywood conception of romance and relationship and serves as a warning to viewers. Another tagline states it bluntly: ìIf you believe in love at first sightÖtake a closer look.î

To debunk this Hollywood notion, director Mike Nichols enlists four of the most visually stunning actors in the world. They are not merely physically attractive, theyíre magnetic. If you want to make a great Hollywood romance and convince someone of love at first sight, these are the actors you would cast to do it. We know about the charisma of Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman, but are there any two actors who have the most hypnotic eyes as Jude Law and Clive Owen? Law knows how to use his face with charming effects, and Owenís magnetism goes beyond his physical looks.

One of the interesting things about the film for me was seeing the differences in both actors and thinking about the nature of star power. Law has a great looking face, and he has all of these appealing facial expressions–wicked charm, playfulness, serious intensityóbut itís all physical, meaning the charisma is all on the surface. The charisma of great stars comes from within just as much as without. They also affect the audience internally just as much as externally. It’s charisma on both levels that allows audience to connect with them, to deeply care about them, even before the characters have really earned it. Law has external charisma but not internal charisma.

Owen, on the other hand, does have both. Every time I see Owen on the screen I say, This guy has ITóthat magic that instantly wins an audience over. Heís not just physically charismatic, but he has a force of personality that draws us to him. That force of personality is what Law lacks. But there is also something deviant or psychotic about Owen that prevents a stronger connection with the audience unlike Mel Gibson. Gibson is a good comparison because he has that ìcrazyî look to him, too, but thereís something we feel comfortable enough to make a stronger connection with him than Owen. Maybe that will change. Still both of them have this force of personality that makes them really watchable.

The same can be said for Roberts and Portman. Julia Roberts has the kind of charisma that allows her to really connect with audiences, and Portman does, too (perhaps to a lesser extent). This is especially true in moments of sadness or vulnerability. Check out the scenes with Portman crying or the one with Roberts leaving Larry. The subtlety and delicacy in Robertsí performance, particularly her facial expressions, is really top-notch, heartbreaking stuff that can make any man fall in love with her. Nichols deserves credit for maximizing their strengths to great effect.

Nichols establishes that the characters can fall in love just by their looks, but then he uses these actors to play characters that have very little to admire besides their good looks. The characters are so misguided placing a great emphasis on physical qualities over more substantive values to such an extent that I can’t imagine many people caring or connecting with them. Honesty, trust, respect or selflessness takes a back seat to physical chemistry, so they overlook things that should concern them otherwise. For example, Dan catches Anna sneaking into his bag when they first meet. I expected Dan to be outraged or at least annoyed, but he acted as if nothing was wrong; it was even cute. This should have been a warning sign to Dan, but he does not see it. Indeed, he finally discovers that Alice lied about her name, something he was oblivious to. Dan is not a stupid person, and I think he doesnít notice these things because his priorities are mixed up.

This leads to reprehensible behavior as well as relationships that lack any significant levels of trust or intimacy, not just for Dan, but the other characters as well. Sex becomes merely a physical, even animal, act. Several scenes with Larry show this. The cyber-sex scene is one. The scene when Larry talks with Alice is another. When Alice refuses any kind of emotional comfort or connection, Larry looks upon Alice in purely carnal way. Alice has no qualms obliging him and apparently no qualms about stripping. Later Larry uses sex as a way to blackmail Anna and get revenge on Dan. But Anna also displays some of the same attitudes. While she initially resists Larryís blackmail, she quickly gives in with little conflict or remorse, during and after the actóincluding the moment she admits her actions to Dan. Danís reacts, not as someone deeply hurt from a breach in trust, but someone who has lost a competition. I canít imagine any of these couples handling great trouble very well as they seem so self-absorbed and incapable of any selfless acts.

I also can’t see them having very meaningful relationships as their approach toward honesty seems out-of-whack. They seem to casually lie to each other without hesitation and remorse. When they do speak the truth they do so inappropriately–with a lack of appropriate levels of remorse and empathy at moments when they no longer love the other person.

So we have these incredibly attractive actors playing these characters that lack substance and a moral center. They’re in relationships that are disastrous. I can’t help but feel Nichols is using them as examples, in a way you would a popular athlete who has made bad choices, and use him or her as an example for other people to avoid. The Italian tagline seems consistent with this: ìThose who love at first sight are traitors at every glance.î He wants us to re-examine our notions of relationships and the way we approach them.

There is one more part of the film that I’d like to site in support of this interpretation, namely the first and last sequence of the film. The film begins with Alice and Dan walking in slow motion towards each other on a crowded London street. They look at each other and something happens; they connect with each other; it’s love at first sight, but it also causes Alice to walk in the street and get hit by a car. That’s foreshadowing and I saw this as a symbol of the filmís meaning: focus too much on a personís looks, and you get blindsided and hurt.

The last sequence is similar to the first. Alice is back in New York City, and she’s walking down a crowded street in slow motion. Men are turning their heads, some of them smiling, as Alice walks by. Alice keeps walking without looking. There are several ways I responded to this. First, we have just seen a film paints a bleak picture of a relationship based on love at first sight. We know something these men don’t. If they did, perhaps they wouldnít be so enthusiastic. The scene serves a final warning. Second, by now we know that Alice is a pretty formidable person. Perhaps, her lack of response to the looks she’s receiving could indicate that a more cautious response to physical appearances or at least less emphasis on it. Finally, I like the scene depicting Alice as someone confident and doing well, as if sheís the real winner.

That is interesting because early in the film she appears to be dependent, vulnerable and weak. Plus, she has very girlish looks. She’s an ingÈnue. She’s also a stripper or a waitress, and she doesnít really seem to have any marketable skills that could make her financially independent. In the scene where Dan says heís going away for a while, Alice is insecure and worried about him going, sensing that he may leave her. But through the course of the film we learn that this image is not totally accurate, starting with the scene when Dan dumps her. Yes, she’s devastated, but she has enough strength to leave Dan that very momentódespite the dangerous neighborhood. We later discover that sheís gone back to stripping, but she seems to be taking care of herself. When Larry encounters her at the club, she shows her confidence and power. In that scene, she is the strong one, she is collected and under control, even when Larry makes her pose in degrading ways. She doesn’t relinquish her power because she chooses to pose for Larry, and she shows no signs of crumbling. Finally, in the last scene with Alice and Dan, we learn that she has paid for their vacation. This shows her capability of not only providing for herself, but for her lover as well, dispelling any hints that she may need a man for financial reasons and supporting the notion that she got back with Dan for love, and not for self-serving reasons. Then she ends the relationship with Dan once she realizes she no longer loves Dan anymore. This is not a co-dependent girl, but a powerful woman, and Portman deserves the credit for convincing the audience of this. (Itís also why I think she gave the performance most deserving of an award.)

There is an interesting parallel happening with Anna, except Anna seems mature, strong, independent in the beginning, but later becomes weaker. She wards off Danís initial advances, and she seems to be a person with a conscience. But she gives in to Dan, leaves Larry, agrees to sleep with Larry so he’ll sign the divorce papers, but later returns to Larry when her relationship with Dan doesnít work out. The last scene with her sleeping next to Larry is an intimate one, but I see the shot as an act of compromise and weakness for Anna (and I donít feel too good about Larryís ìtriumph,î either. How good can their relationship be given what we know happened in the past?). On the other hand, Alice appears like the real winner or at least she appears strong and confident.

Alice is not only strong, but, of the other characters, I found her to be the most moral and admirable. Earlier I said the characters lacked a moral center, but I think Alice might be the exception. I find little to object to in her behavior with Dan, a part from looking into his bag or giving him a false name. (Did she behave in any other objectionable way?) She is truly devastated and hurt when Dan reveals he no longer loves her and that he loves someone else. She leaves him immediately, which tells me sheís not in the relationship for emotional or financial security. She also leaves Dan a second time or falls out of love with him, when Dan must know if she slept with Larry. There’s a trust that’s broken and, perhaps, she realizes the kind of person Dan is. Whatever the cause, in both circumstances, she leaves the relationship for legitimate reasons, unlike the other characters.

There’s another reason for viewing Alice in this positive way. There is a class difference between Alice and the other three characters. While the interpretation of Alice as the triumph of working class over the rich and privileged is clichÈd, but compelling nevertheless. The ironies are also appealing: a ìgirlî behaves more like an adult than the ìadults.î More importantly a case can be made for this. When Anna first meets Alice, Alice says that sheís a waitress. Anna asks if that is a temporary job, assuming that for any intelligent person it would be. But Alice answers that is it not temporary without hesitation or embarrassment. She seems to know who she is and sheís comfortable with herself. Furthermore, we learn that Aliceís real name is Jane Jones, a plain (ìplain Janeî) name signifying a working class sensibility. We also learn that the name she chooses is someone who saved three children (was it three), which indicates Alice/Jane as a kind of hero who maybe tries to save the lives of three children named Dan, Larry and Anna. (She rebukes Anna for liking Dan; She rebukes Anna for taking picture of people in pain and superficially washing over their pain; she tells Larry her real name, but he canít trust her or believe that she is this kind of person;

Finally, learning Alice is not her real name is one last reminder to Dan and the audience that perhaps we didnít really understand her character, that we need seriously consider Alice/Jane and not dismiss her because sheís working class, girlish or stripper. This seemingly weak and lowly person may have more going for her than we imagine. Perhaps she even has the right set of values and approach to relationships. If we look closer at Alice/Jane, we may discover these things. Perhaps, looking more closely and carefully at relationships and scrutinizing specific preconceptions we have of people and ideal relationships is what Nichols is after in this film.

4 Responses to “Closer (Review)”


  1. Tony

    I think your estimation of Alice as the most moral character is interesting. The whole entire movie is based on one lie that is only revealed at the end (though hinted at in the confrontation at the club). The whole movie is one big moral quandry between the parenthesis of this one girl’s lie. Can you really believe anything she says (unless, obviously, you verbally abuse her).

    Great movie.

  2. Reid

    I don’t know if I’d say the whole movie is based on that one lie, but I’d be interested in hearing your explanation for that.

  3. pen

    **spoilers**

    Closer was such an interesting, intense movie. I thought it was filled with ironies. Reid touched upon some of them.

    1. The ones who appeared strongest and most confident in the beginning, were really shown in the end to be the weaker ones (as Reid talks about, above).

    2. The one you think may be the most “moral” / emotional road kill (Dan) turns out to be the most Machiavellian one in that he deliberately manipulates the weaknesses of others to get what he wants. He also has sex with a “whore” on his trip, but tells Anna about it the night he returns. Actually, that in itself could probably be scrutinized more, but anyway…

    3. Larry desperately tries to make a real connection with Alice after the devastating end of his relationship with Anna. Alice actually offers honesty by giving her real name, but Larry dismisses it as more teasing and tries to punish her by being so gosh darn degradingly demanding.

    4. What the characters thought were their ideal mates, really weren’t. Of course a lot of this has to do with that “love at first sight” stuff that Reid wrote about.

    There are probably a lot more examples, but these are the ones that I remember now.

    I also liked the ending. By the end of the movie, I was feeling disheartened, despairing and irritated (with the characters, not the movie). Then you find out Alice is really Jane and she does walk confidently down the road, and while other guys look, she’s on her own path.

    Nicols does offer a little uplifting splotch like that in Carnal Knowledge, too. There, at least one relationship (male friendship) is able to have a modicum of depth and endure after time. Weak rays of sunlight in an otherwise bleak movie.

  4. Reid

    Penny,

    In your #2 above, I think you’re referring to Larry (Clive Owen), not Dan (Jude Law).

    Do you agree with my interpretation of the film? I ask because while I think the interpretation fits, I’m not 100% sold on it. I mean, it’s the way I interpret the film, so it’s “correct” in that way, but a part of me feels like Nichols has something else in mind, namely a dark comedy. For example, the way that Larry and Dan mess with each other. What Larry does (i.e. blackmail Anna for sex) is reprehensible, but a part of me feels like Nichols intends these scenes to be comical, more than sraight drama (if that makes sense). He will allow the characters to behave a bit over-the-top because he’s going for a comedy. It’s a film that tries to be funny by skewering its characters (except for Alice).

    I didn’t see the film that way, but maybe if I watched it again with that mindset, I would see the film differently. I know when I watched Carnal Knowledge, I went in expecting a black comedy, and I enjoyed the humor.

    I should say that even if Nichols went for comedy in both films, he didn’t exclude serious dramatic moments from either film either. He seems to base his comedy by showing us the way people behave–that includes both humorous and somber moments.

    Btw, here’s an exercept from a Movieweb interview with director, Mike Nichols about the film, Closer:

    “I read it before I saw it and I think the central scene which upset me a lot when I read it, it had a very strong effect on me of Anna telling Larry that she was going and him forcing her in his pain to tell him what she did with the other guy. I thought that was very much at the heart of all relationships. I talked about it yesterday, I said ‘There’s something we’ve all heard, namely “I promise I won’t be mad, I just want to know.” And everybody above the age of 11 knows you shouldn’t answer that question. But to answer the question is to start the kind of slide into pain for both people.’ I think in some ways, it’s about that. My wife said one of the things about Closer is the importance of lying in a relationship, or withholding. It’s about the definition of closeness. Do you really have a right to know what’s in the other person’s head? Do you have the right to protect what’s in your head? And I think the answer is yes, of course. Love involves leaving each other intact, rather than trying to absorb the other person. Two people can’t be one person and in my experience, happiness comes from being together but always marinating enough separateness. My wife for instance doesn’t answer the question, ‘What are you thinking?’ She simply doesn’t answer which I’ve tried. It’s very interesting. I’m not as good as not answering as she is, but it’s important to remember that you don’t have to answer what are you thinking? The point is that it’s what you’re thinking. It’s not what you’re saying. It’s yours.”

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