For those unacquainted with singer-songwriter Damien Rice, the opening track of Closer may be a bit of a revelation. "And so it is," the song goes, "just like you said it would be. Life goes easy on me, most of the time. And so it is, the shorter story, no love no glory no hero in her sky " and then "I can't take my eyes off of you" repeats and repeats.
Rice's work is extraordinary in its raw combination of emptiness and longing, never better expressed than on "The Blower's Daughter," which opens Closer. We hear this song at the beginning and at the end, and while I will not spoil the latter for you, I will say that it encapsulates the mood of the film.
Written by Patrick Marber (from his acclaimed play of the same name), Closer examines four lonesome souls, adrift in different London worlds. Dan (Jude Law) is an obituarist. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer. Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist. When Dan sees free-spirited Alice hit by a taxi, a chain of events begins that unites and sunders each of this quartet into a strange, sexy round-robin of lust and envy.
Dan and Alice live together after the accident. Time passes, and Dan writes a book. While posing for the jacket photo, he meets Anna and is instantly obsessed with her. Since he can't have Anna, he stalks and toys with her, eventually playing a prank (via an Internet sex chat room) that brings random and unwitting doctor Larry to a rendezvous at an aquarium. He's there for sex. Anna wants to look at fish. Of course, they end up married. But not for long. Anna succumbs to the desperation of Dan's affections. Lonely and devastated, Larry visits a strip club, where he meets a newly single Alice. "And so it is "
My first exposure to Closer was back in 1998, a year after the play's debut in London. A group of enthusiastic actors had acquired the unpublished manuscript and organized a midnight living-room reading. For the famous chat-room scene, they drew up index cards with the chat text written on them to give the best sense of the typed, unspoken dialogue. The experience of this reading was electrifying. The language was so darkly, crudely poetic ("It tastes like you but sweeter!") and the relationships so raw and real. Few of us had experienced anything quite like it in theatrical form.
Now, in 2004, the film is released, and at its helm is Mike Nichols, who knows a little something about theater (as an accomplished stage director), a little about sexual jealousies and "love rectangles" (having directed 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and 1971's Carnal Knowledge), and a lot about turning great plays into great films (Woolf, Wit, Angels in America). Best of all, he may be Hollywood's premier actor's director forgoing visual or conceptual excess in favor of drawing the best performances out of great actors. This is invaluable in Closer. The relationships are so thoroughly complicated and the need for pomp or periphery so spare.
Credible and unnerving performances abound. Owen, who played Dan in the original London production, stands out a bit from the otherwise superlative bunch perhaps because he has spent so much time with this text and its tricky, sticky wordplay and perhaps because he has the most to gain, as the least recognizable name on the marquee. When he bellows "BECAUSE I'M A FUCKING CAVEMAN!" you believe it. Law does just fine playing quite a different kind of cad than his Alfie, while Portman offers her most adult performance to date as a darker, sexier wild child than her Garden State waif. Roberts plays to her strength vulnerability wrapped in insecurity and tied together with guts and while her performance isn't particularly remarkable, it's nice to see her choosing ensemble roles in interesting projects rather than bland star vehicles.
While it never entirely escapes the confines of a stage play to open up a film world of its own, Closer provides perhaps the closest look at the fickle nature of fidelity that we have seen in cinema in a while and the closest look any of us want to take. •