The Agony of Intimacy

Closer offers a stylish but superficial take on modern relationships

British playwright Patrick Marber's London hit Closer, first staged in 1997, was the kind of oh-so-grown-up sexual roundelay with just enough titillation to keep things interesting. Like Neil LaBute's brackish sex dramas, Closer was the kind of postmodern morality tale where viewers got to hear a lot of smutty talk before the ax falls.

Marber's frank, grown-up tale concerned the bed-hopping and mate-swapping of a cosmopolitan quartet living in contemporary London: American stripper Alice and her obituary writer boyfriend, Dan; dermatologist Larry and his American photographer wife, Anna.

Circa 2004 and directed by Mike Nichols, Closer feels a little shopworn and calculated. From the strip club where Alice (Natalie Portman) toys with Larry's (Clive Owen) sexual anxiety, to the absurd, oversized art gallery where photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) displays her work, the settings feel like clever, theatrical environments designed to impress us with the sophistication of the characters and the worlds they inhabit. But they are as distractingly obvious as the dockside or dingy walk-up apartment would be in a comparable tale of the lower classes.

Closer was so suited to the mid-'90s, it feels like an anachronism. That was the era of films like LaBute's In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, or David Mamet's Oleanna, which dramatized a backlash against the trickle down of academic political correctness. Those films depicted male/female relationships as a cutthroat, bloody, take-no-prisoners war. But things seem to have settled down. That dire, teeth-bared attitude seems a bit hyperbolic.

Closer is comparably brutal, suggesting love and lust as an animalistic fight for territory. Lust has a brutal side, evident from Dan (Jude Law) and Alice's first meeting when their anonymous sidewalk flirtation results in Alice being sideswiped by a London cabbie.

Nichols delights in the incongruity of their attraction. Alice is a creature of impulse, in her scabby vintage jacket and cartoon red hair. Dan is a symbol of control, his job writing obituaries at a London newspaper all about formula and foregone conclusions. When Dan finally crawls out of the "Siberia of journalism" and writes a book, he appears to use his sudden burst of status — and self-confidence — to trade up. He sets his sights on Anna.

Closer's storytelling moves as quickly as its rat-a-tat dialogue, leapfrogging through time as its characters meet, fuck, cohabitate, then do it all over again with somebody new. Throughout its changes of romantic affiliation, Closer's title proves neatly ironic. The more intimate these people get, the more they reveal, and the more they tend to drift apart. Probe too deeply, be too truthful, and the whole romantic house of cards comes crashing down.

Closer is centered on just four key players and is therefore the kind of film made or broken by its actors. In the thankless job of muse, Portman is given the difficult task of playing a beautiful blank slate onto which men can project their fantasies. Portman turns out to be surprisingly affecting despite her characters' superficial parameters. She's certainly a step above Roberts playing her usual brittle ice princess too caustic to inspire adoration. In Alfie, Law revealed the tenderness behind the playa. But in Closer, Law is the kind of ho-hum cad more obsessed with conquest than the spoils. Channeling Hugh Grant's self-deprecating British manner, Law has begun to suggest his self-effacement hides a core of infinite self-regard.

But the real star of Closer, who gives the postmodern post-romance its glimmer of humanity, is Clive Owen as the knuckle-dragging dermatologist who performs a mean mind-fuck on wife Anna and romantic rival Dan. The highs and lows of sexual vengeance and romantic agony have never been conveyed so well as in the strutting, wounded form of Owen, who flicks Law aside like a wispy Tinkerbell messing in grown-up affairs and approaches his love for his wife like a lion surveys a lamb. Larry has the brutal pragmatism of a man whose working-class origins have made him skeptical of anything fancy and anxious to win the mating game at any cost. But unlike one of LaBute's one-dimensional mercenary men, Larry rises above misanthropic creepiness by laughing at human frailty, including his own.

Closer is all very saucy and sharp-witted, but it isn't exactly a startling, incisive read on modern relationships. An NPR-styled date film, Closer is meant to provoke moderate uneasiness and enough heated conversation and speculation to last through a drink and an appetizer, until dinner arrives.