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Movie Review: Patrick Marber’s Closer – Farce Served Cold

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Larry (to Dan): "Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist, wrapped in blood! Go fuck yourself! You writer! You liar!"

The movie version of Patrick Marber's 1997 play Closer opens with two beauties walking towards each other down a mobbed London sidewalk, the rhythm set by the Irishman Damien Rice's plaintive song "The Blower's Daughter". They move in the most languorous slow motion and so, like the pair — Dan (Jude Law), an obituary writer and aspiring novelist, and Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper — we readily slip into an erotic trance, almost by habit, and shut out the unidealized ambient realities. But reality won't be ignored: the American Alice looks to her left when crossing the street and is knocked down by a cab. When she comes to, however, her amorous instinct has not been sleeping: she looks up at Dan and says coyly, "Hello, stranger."

Marber and the director Mike Nichols transplant this meeting out of fairy tale (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty) and romanticized saga (Wagner's Siegfried) into the world we know. Dan takes Alice to the ER, where they continue flirting; she accompanies him to his office building where he admits that he already has a girlfriend. This won't stop him from pursuing Alice, however, and as moviegoers we hope that he and Alice will get together because they're so good-looking and we haven't even seen the GF anyway, so she's not really a person to us. In any event, our moviegoer's "romantic" urge is gratified, and, as the movie shows in scenes spread over the following four years, all of the major characters live out the consequences.

When we next see Dan, he's being photographed for the cover of his soon-to-be-published novel, and though he's still with Alice, he presses himself on Anna (Julia Roberts), the photographer, who tells him "No," by which she means both, "Grow up!" and "Maybe." Peeved, Dan goes into a cybersex chat room pretending to be Anna and arranges for a hook-up at the London Aquarium where he knows she likes to photograph strangers. Larry (Clive Owen), the randy dermatologist at the other end, shows up and is amazed to find that the nasty girl from the Internet is not an "old trout." On the other hand, the comely Anna is not aware that she was meeting anyone and so Larry has to push for a response. Despite the awkward situation, Larry fares better than Dan did — he's charming, albeit in a rougher way, but he's available.

As a couple, Anna and Larry laugh about Dan's Internet mischief, dubbing him "Cupid," but they haven't seen the last of him. He shows up at Anna's one-woman exhibit and throws himself at her again, while from across the gallery Alice and Larry comment snidely on their partners who are engaged in an "intense" conversation. Alice, with a lover's ESP, has been dismayed by Anna since the day Dan was photographed. The photo Anna snapped of Alice in tears that day is in the exhibit, which Alice finds no better than artfully mendacious. Larry is turned on by Alice but pulls back; commitment is a moral rather than hormonal imperative with him, but an imperative nonetheless.

A year later, it is revealed that Dan finally succeeded with Anna the night of the exhibit and both couples blow apart. They continue to cross paths, however. In one sequence, Larry turns up unshaven and miserable at a strip club where Alice has gone back to work. In a subsequent sequence, Anna joins Dan late for a performance of Così fan tutte because she had to meet Larry to get the divorce papers signed, an encounter we see in flashback. In both instances, we later learn, Larry takes the seemingly fraying plot in hand and maneuvers everyone in the direction of his or her weakness, to Larry's own advantage, but also, he thinks, to everyone else's, except Dan's.

That's it. The plot is intricate — a lot of maneuvering in ten scenes and an epilogue that jump ahead in time without titles to keep us oriented — but not insistent. At the end, one couple has "survived" and the other hasn't. The script evinces a frankness about what people in love will do to each other that borders on rawness, but it doesn't feel like pure naturalism, that is, a study for its own sake of what these individual characters do in this particular situation.

Rather, Marber emphasizes the different ways in which men and women play the game of love and how their ill-matched sensitivities work against them. The key premise is that what we mean by civilization requires that women possess the sexual power of saying yes or no (as Larry points out to Dan in their end-stage confrontation). A concomitant is that it's generally up to men to pursue women, which makes men emotionally vulnerable to women's power, as firmly as they may accept that it's right for women to possess it.

For their part, women are physically and sexually vulnerable to men, and may be economically dependent as well, and are, for these good reasons, more cautious. The paradoxically accompanying result is that women may take the tense trickiness of love in stride, as differently as they feel about it: Anna is more practical and tougher than Alice, for instance, who can't believe when the bomb explodes even though she's heard it whistling towards her from the first scene (when Dan told her he had a girlfriend, right before he asked her name).

The women in Closer want permanent connections — which is different from being suited to maintaining them. Anna may consistently want to have a child but changes her mind about who the father will be. The men, on the other hand, are always drawn to excitement, challenge, though they certainly do not want things to change, except on their own initiative, of course. Marber seems to accept (guiltily?) Anna's statement that "men are crap" when, post-come-on, she hears Dan has a live-in girlfriend (meaning, in that instance, Alice).

The men can't read the women, who are trying to tell them what they think the men want to hear but can't always guess right. Sometimes the guys want to be conned, or say they do. And the women can be very good at it: at her show, for instance, Anna explains away her shadowy chat with Dan by telling Larry that Dan's father has died and immediately turns the situation around with a crack conwoman's skill: "Were you spying?" What moves the story along as much as anything are the moments when the women alternately lie and tell the truth when it would have been better not to do whichever it is they've just done. (Although the men might not have been any happier with the alternative.)

The seeming inevitability of miscommunication is clearest in the strip club where Larry pays for private "entertainment" with Alice and tries to break through her provocatively impenetrable bewitchery. He throws large-denomination pound notes at her to get her to tell him her real name. He thinks he already knows the answer, that he's a step ahead of her, and so fails to recognize the truth when she tells it to him.

Thus, the characters in Closer divide by sex (though hardly in solidarity) and also line up too neatly for naturalism—arranged by occupation they cover the ground from most "dead" to most "alive," or perhaps most "unconnected" to most "present": obituarist, photographer, dermatologist, stripper. At the same time, the characters are not only allegorical personifications of socio-sexual traits but differentiate quite clearly. Nichols helps root the play's stark confrontations in evocative film settings, and, in a similar vein, his actors blend their particularized characterizations right into Marber's shrewdly dramatized generalizations. It's as if Pinocchio had become a real boy while remaining an expertly crafted object in wood.

The late-night club scene, for instance, features an emblematic face-off between inconsolable man and inconsolable woman. Nichols shoots the strip joint as a hermetic, sleazy underworld of electric pastels, blue and pink, where you can see the smears on the mirrors. It's a synthetic fantasy of debasement, a circle reserved for self-hating horndogs in a Dantesque Disneyland. But it also looks the way dives look in the wee hours when you feel like Larry and Alice do. The sequence is thus also a believable face-off between Larry, the most dominant character at his weakest moment, and Alice, the most wounded character at her most controlled.

Larry spots Alice in a bubble-gum-colored wig and pays for her time in the Paradise Room, one of eight so named. Alice recognizes Larry, too, but refuses to act out her emotions about their defecting partners, or to help Larry act out his. Larry feels that the professionally teasing Alice is playing with him wantonly—as if a woman intentionally arouses every inflection of what a man projects onto her. Reacting to her as elusive "woman," an impassive archer-goddess, he calls her cold at heart, which is exactly wrong. She's the tenderest body in the movie, and the least adept at amorous sport. (She doesn't think love is a game, sport, war, which may be why she keeps losing.) She's cold only to the touch, especially of someone whose intentions are as suspect as Larry's. Yet Alice is also the most fiercely independent character of all. This seems to be why she can work at a strip club, because the clientele can never "touch" her.

Marber's characters are recognizable as both individuals and configurations (of hormones and opportunities). They're also both "people" and types—the types that people become by acting on and responding to these inveterate, self-seeking impulses. What we witness is the process by which desperate men and women archetypally turn themselves and each other into stalkers, con artists, liars, brutes, and whores, and Marber's various ways of approaching character function surprisingly well in the partner-switching plot.

The central effect of Marber's importing rough experience into a sexual roundelay is to counteract the easy-to-love sugariness of farce, to give it a less airy texture and a savory tang. Thus, in Closer the glamour doesn't quite stick to the action as it does in a Cary Grant movie such as The Awful Truth (1937) or The Philadelphia Story (1940). This isn't a fault—it's the point. Closer gives you the misbehavior of farce without the comic archetypes that allow you to accept the improbabilities of both the obstacles and their eventual resolution. And it manages to be as lightweight, flexible, and swift as farce without stripping the irresoluble anguish out of the characters' romantic entanglements.

This is the pay-off to the combination of genres—allegory, naturalism, farce, and, inevitably, irony. Closer is paradoxical high-end movie farce, glossy and yet unvarnished. As Marber said in this October 1999 interview, "The idea was always to create something that has a formal beauty into which you could shove all this anger and fury. I hoped the dramatic power of the play would rest on that tension between elegant structure—the underlying plan is that you see the first and last meeting of every couple in the play—and inelegant emotion." Marber looks at farcical giddiness with a hard-won sobriety.

Closer has a direct precursor in Arthur Schnitzler's Reigen. (Written in 1897 and privately circulated among the author's friends in 1900, Schnitzler's piece was not intended for performance and was not in fact performed publicly until 1921.) Reigen comprises ten encounters between lovers, showing them both before and after sex. One half of each pair then appears in the following scene with a new partner. The pairings give us a glimpse of every level of society: a prostitute, a soldier, and a servant up through a poet and an actress, on to the bourgeoisie and the nobility. Schnitzler trained as a doctor and had studied syphilis, and, although this is not made explicit in the text, the chain of lovers replicates the transmission of the spirochete, which recognizes no social boundaries, defers to no yearnings or honorable intentions.

Schnitzler kept a diary for 50 years until just before his death; during one part of it he recorded every orgasm, with some of his many sexual partners. Reigen thus reflects the author's findings in the field as well as in the lab. In the middle of each of the play's ten scenes, Schnitzler places a row of asterisks to indicate the elided sex act, and in the second half of most of them he captures the male's mysterious post-orgasmic change of mood better than any work I know. He was scrupulously observant of "love" as a congeries of physiological facts and whatever social forms or emotional projections the participants consider necessary or desirable.

Both Closer and Reigen take an ironic approach to farce, but on balance Marber tends to favor experience, Schnitzler observation. Thus, unlike Reigen, Closer is detached but not clinical—there's nothing as concrete as syphilis underlying the characters' movements or accounting for their bafflement and pain, for instance. Nonetheless, in both plays the low-temperature approach keeps the emotions from overwhelming other responses. In Closer, you register and respond to the characters' illusions, lies, opportunism, and manipulations, but you don't see them from their self-serving perspectives. For instance, when he goes to Larry's office sniveling that he wants Anna back, Dan gets his comeuppance from Larry, in both immediate and time-release forms. We're too acquainted with Larry's brutally effective "caveman" side, however, to cheer. (After seeing Dan for the first time at Anna's show, Larry says to her, "I could 'ave 'im" (as in a physical fight) like a pitbull marking his territory.)

In this slightly sterile atmosphere, Marber enables you to identify with the characters in a way that doesn't permit you to make excuses, either. I could identify with all of them in part, and unless your love life has been considerably more placid than mine, you, too, will have done to others, or had done to you, everything that Larry & Anna & Dan & Alice do to each other. Though considerably toned up, this is how your romantic entanglements would look from a disinterested viewpoint. Closer is a voguish farce that, rather than making you wish you were like the characters, makes you wish that you hadn't been.

Marber started his career as a stand-up comedian, but as clever as he is he doesn't make "cute" about the characters' behavior. At the same time, it doesn't feel perverse of the movie to use Così fan tutte as background music and cultural referent, because Marber is laying out the old bad news with a light hand: with a caviar knife not a trowel. Closer is even less idealistic than Così fan tutte, with its the 18th-century urbanity, and it's less "fun" as well, which is not to say it isn't a successful work of entertainment. The adroit dialogue isn't the brittle, polished repartee of classic farce, in which all the characters say at the perfect moment and with perfect timing what would be l'esprit de l'escalier for us, at best. Marber's highly theatrical writing makes the term "punchy" seem more literally descriptive than usual. The dialogue indicates why these people would find each other attractive but also the problems they'll run into. It has the depressive gleam of beauty reflected in polished jet.

I particularly love when Alice first tells Dan she worked as a stripper in New York and then exclaims, "Look at your little eyes!" Since he's trying to win her, all he can manage is, "I can't see my little eyes." By the end of the movie you realize that though this is expert first-meeting banter, making Dan seem smart and funny, it also means he's not focusing on what he feels about what he's hearing. He saves the moment but only defers the damage, which will be worse for the deferral. Some of the lines, particularly Larry's, are bruising, but are sensationally effective in theatrical terms and emphasize the impossibility of taking back what's been done and said. The plot is, by the end, ingenious, but I was completely engrossed in the exchanges among the four characters and didn't think about the dénouement until it was happening.

I have never liked a movie directed by Mike Nichols more than Closer. Marber's detachment perfectly suits the man who, in this 2 December 2004 interview, said of his relationship with Diane Sawyer:

Love involves leaving each other intact, rather than trying to absorb the other person… My wife for instance doesn't answer the question, "What are you thinking?" … It's very interesting. I'm not as good at 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.

As a director, Nichols has almost always been too sure a showman — you never needed to ask what he was thinking. Here he scores all Marber's points but with Marber's address (rather than, say, Neil Simon's, among the playwrights Nichols has been associated with). Marber hits everything just enough — we're not being petted or pummeled. And Nichols doesn't treat Closer like a surefire hit or a costly literary product. In his 70s and apparently having relaxed into his reputation and talent, he treats Marber's play with the honest respect he brought to his brisk, imaginatively engaged performance in David Hare's filmed reading of Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner (1997).

Nichols does open the play up, but not obtrusively. As beautifully designed and shot as Closer is, I never felt it was merely picturesque. His handling of the adaptation is supple to the point of liquidity. He shoots the much-talked-about cybersex correspondence with an adept friskiness, setting it to the Overture of Rossini's La Cenerentola. Where the play uses tricky staging to juxtapose the two couples' break-ups, Nichols takes advantage of the intercutting possible in movies in a way that keeps you especially alert. The play flows from one set-piece to another, carrying the whole range of ideas and emotions along with it.

The actors are more restricted by the combination of Marber's irony and artifice and Nichols's seasoned dexterity than the actors in the looser, more exploratory (1975), which is farce reimagined in naturalistic terms (and which did not begin life on the stage). This is not to say that actors can't give fine performances.

Even Jude Law is more effective than usual. It's usually a problem that Law always manages concentration without density. Here it's just right for Dan, the romantic cipher, the fantasy lover who can't survive outside the fantasy. (As Larry says to him, he doesn't know the first thing about love because he doesn't understand compromise.) The still-insurmountable problem for Law, with his fibreless blond English dreaminess, is that he doesn't work to connect with the audience and has generated a lot of ill will. He isn't actor enough to make Dan's weakness memorable (which it might be if he were as talented at comedy as Ewan McGregor) and so he comes off as pathetically weak, an empty package for discarding.

Julia Roberts gives some wonderful readings, particularly comic ones, when, for instance, she tells Larry the name of Dan's novel. And her expressions can be quite specifically eloquent, her lowered gaze during the break-up fight with Larry, for instance, in answer to his saying, "But we're happy, aren't we?" which he had intended as a rhetorical question.

And Roberts isn't afraid of all that's unflattering about Anna, but she lacks the theatrical technique to draw us in to the character's waffling, which hurts other people worse than decisiveness would and doesn't even get her what she wants. Roberts also gets the hollow self-loathing of Anna's "I'm disgusting," spoken immediately after confessing how long she's been hiding her adultery. But Roberts never really seems disgusting here, or whorish or as enamored of a guilty fuck as Larry says she is, or as witchy as Alice says she is, and we can't be sure whether Marber intends the other characters to be misspeaking or exaggerating (doubtful) or whether Roberts is simply not right for the play. She's not wrong for it, but that isn't enough. (Probably a bigger problem for the movie's success is that when Roberts runs her starshine through a dark filter, it gets a little dim. Not as dim here as in Mary Reilly (1996), which was inferior material, but still.)

Alice, for whom waitressing is not a temporary thing as Anna assumes, is the most masochistic role, just as Larry is the most sadistic, and she reminds you of any number of underappreciated nice girls in movies. Natalie Portman stands with the very best of them, Juliette Binoche in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), for example. Her performance even benefits from a certain gaucheness in her domestic scenes, which involve the most direct emoting in the movie. She gives Alice enough teary-babyishness to impress you with the amount of shellac she has applied over it in the public scenes. The inscrutably pert way she says "Thank you" over and over to Larry in the Paradise Room, for instance, is classic, so repetitive as to be maddening and yet beautifully expressive, as measured by what Alice is refusing to respond to.

Portman has been directed very well so that the waif-dominatrix iciness Alice gives off registers as deliberate protective cover. When your life is out of kilter, or you just want money, you give the world what it expects and values, but you never identify success in the assumed role with satisfaction. This leaves Alice open to being misinterpreted and doesn't help her get what she wants anymore than Anna does, despite being less compromised than her rival. She's the last character we see, now turning heads as she bobs down a mobbed Times Square sidewalk in the same seductive slow motion as in the opening, on her own again.

Clive Owen has the most impact among the four stars, probably because he has the role that is technically the hero, i.e., the man capable of effective action. This isn't heroic romance, however, and so you remain aware of what goes into Larry's maneuvering—not just the good intentions, intelligence, and judiciousness, but the male rage, class resentment, deviousness, and competitiveness. In his first, vain triumph after he's been told he's a cuckold, Larry provokes Anna into telling him the dirtiest truths about her affair and then says, "Thank you for your honesty. Now fuck off and die … you fucked-up slag." (The scene is so superbly orchestrated that you credit Larry with the combined skills of Marber, Nichols, and Owen. You wouldn't want to hide a secret from him.) Owen doesn't hold back any more than Roberts does, but he does so without losing what makes him magnetic onscreen.

Owen originated the role of Dan in London, so the change in roles protects him against seeming overpracticed in his role. More to his credit, you never think of Owen's considerable vocal flair as "theatrical," anyway. It's how a man like Larry dominates a room, a situation. He's Clark Gable the sexual realist with more temperament than Gable had as an actor (Gable always overrelied on simplified gestures, such as the trademark smirk) and without the airbrushing of Gable's character imposed by MGM.

The fact that his face isn't perfect, and Larry admits it, only helps. Larry's emotions seem to be legible in the cells of Owen's mug, allowing him to get the most effect from utterly direct readings. Owen suggests Larry's awareness that he may not win, and in the strip club we see the negative side of his stability and strength—the sadomasochistic flagrance of the civilized caveman's misery. Owen's great feat is to embody his crafty archetype so thoroughly that he crosses the natural/artificial narrative boundary. As Larry, he's Harlequin armed with a truncheon, and his performance provides the heat and energy that fuse Marber's amazing composite structure.

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