This brutal look at love and relationships as they occur naturally in the wild—without the benefit of moral structure or even basic common sense—uses London as its dreary backdrop.
It’s lust at first sight when Dan spies Alice on a city sidewalk. She must feel the same way because she’s so busy staring at him she walks smack into an approaching taxi. He promptly shepherds her to the hospital to get her scrapes bandaged; then the two break the sound barrier transitioning from sharing significant glances to sharing a bed and an apartment.
Not so very much later, it is craving at first sight when Dan, an aspiring novelist, poses for a book jacket photograph taken by Anna. She repels him at first, reminding him that he’s already “taken.” But, of course, that small detail doesn’t stop them for long. All they need is the right environment, and that, seemingly, can only be had after Anna becomes involved with Larry. Before the sad, steamy soap opera ends, everyone has cheated and re-cheated on everyone else, and nobody’s even close to what any sane mind would dare think of as happy.
The film is so soiled that every instinct I have tells me to simply write, “None.” But by painting such a dismal picture of love as practiced outside of God’s perfect plan, Closer comes very close to proving His point: that a monogamous, persevering commitment to marriage is the only way it works.
Twice, characters refer to the virtues they believe separate us from animals: honesty and forgiveness. Both are sorely abused by this grim gaggle of would-be lovers, but their crass manipulation inadvertently reveals these virtues’ value. When Larry bludgeons Anna with an “honest” report of his solicitation of a prostitute, for instance, he claims he loves her so much he simply can’t lie to her. Not so, Larry. If you loved her so much, you’d have used your dedication to honesty as a hedge to prevent you from buying sex to begin with. Larry doesn’t learn that truth, but anyone watching with more than half a brain engaged will recognize it immediately.
Courting Anna, Larry embraces her love for aquariums, stating, “We were fish long ago, before we were apes.”
No one is actually seen simulating sex. But that doesn’t mean Closer is light on explicit sexual content. The conversations about sexual couplings are almost unimaginably obscene, and include the most extreme terminology and descriptions available in the English language. Graphic discussions emphasize masturbation, prostitution, stripping, oral sex, homosexuality, manual stimulation and orgasms.
We meet Larry as he’s engaging in cybersex. For what seems like half an eternity, we watch him typing out rude, crude and socially unacceptable comments, and hurling them toward the object of his lust, which he thinks is a woman. It’s not. It’s actually Dan pretending to be a woman—Anna to be precise. (While the two are typing, banner ads displayed on their computer browsers feature sexual poses and nudity.) Unaware of Dan’s deception, Anna meets Larry in real life and promptly begins dating him, completely unconcerned that he is an unqualified pervert—even after she learns of his anonymous Internet dealings with Dan.
Alice tells Dan she’s a stripper when they first meet. Later she proves it—onscreen—in a lengthy scene devoted to her exhibitionist craft. Topless pole dancers are seen in a club; then the camera enters a private room where Alice and Larry converse endlessly about, among other things, the intricacies of strip club rules and the specific body parts routinely on display. Alice wears only thong panties and a bra during the exchange, strutting seductively and striking sexual poses for him as the camera plays peekaboo, just barely avoiding showing her breasts and genitals when she either takes off or puts on her “gear,” as Larry calls it.
A floor-to-ceiling photograph of a nude pregnant woman serves as a (out-of-focus) backdrop for a conversation between Larry and Alice.
Alice’s run-in with the taxi isn’t shown, but she’s seen lying prone in the street, and her bloodied leg is glimpsed. Dan slaps Alice full across the face after she spits in his.
About 40 f-words, half of which are used in a sexual context. A handful of s-words. Jesus’ name is forcefully abused three times. The f-word is substituted for God’s name in one particularly polluted slice of dialogue. Male and female sexual anatomy is referred to (about a dozen times) with American and British slang too obscene even to hyphenate in this review.
Characters smoke cigarettes on several occasions. Two of them insist they’ve given up the habit, but never seem to actually refuse the offer of another stick. Most consume beer, champagne or hard liquor at various points in the story.
Clive Owen, Jude Law, Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman all lose themselves in the script, turning in amazingly grim and moody performances that honor its tone in a way rarely seen in anything short of a true art film. And because of that, Closer succeeds in reducing once-cheerful audiences to brooding, miserable masses. While Damien Rice’s haunting lyrics (“Did I say that I loathe you?/Did I say that I want to/Leave it all behind? … I can’t take my mind off of you … ‘Til I find somebody new”) bracket the movie, much of its central conflict is carried on in a musicless void, accentuating the emptiness and loneliness being experienced by its principal players.
But since every character deserves every ounce of pain he or she experiences due to absurdly stupid decisions, I just can’t shake the feeling that this is all an exercise in foulness and futility. Are we really, after all, supposed to feel shocked and depressed when four so-called adults reap the whirlwind of hate and disgust for callously following their lust? Are we supposed to be appeased by this quartet’s fixation with being honest and transparent, and think somehow that their sins are mitigated by it? And if the message here isn’t that “honesty” is the solution—which it clearly isn’t for these hapless humans—is it then the reverse? Should we be learning that relationships only survive if we care enough to lie?
Julia Roberts saw the Patrick Marber play on which Closer is based long before accepting the role of Anna. “I didn’t like it, not because it wasn’t good but because it was just so ugly to me,” she told Newsweek. “In London theaters they serve ice cream at the concession stands, and I remember standing up when the play was over and seeing all these ice-cream wrappers on the floor and thinking, ‘Ice cream? What we need are martinis and razor blades.'”
Her revulsion didn’t stop her from starring in the movie, but I’m hoping it might have a somewhat different effect on her fans.