"Getting married for sex is like buying a 747 for the free peanuts…"
Jeff Foxworthy, Comedian
pretty sure Mr. Foxworthy was being cynical (service charges
for large wide bodied aircraft are extensive and come at
a cost most cities cannot afford). But we could see it another
way if we cue-balled marriage into the 'falling in love'
pocket. In that case sex is not love, but a tiny part of
the whole shebang; such an unfortunate word under the circumstances.
In Closer, two couples' lives play off,
into and around each other with consequences all too familiar
to anyone who's suffered love's thick fleecy warmth and
fiercely sharp teeth.
sensitive but unworldly, would-be writer Dan (Jude Law)
falls for the mysterious young American Alice (Natalie Portman)
as she, in turn, falls under a taxi. A year later Dan is
powerfully attracted to photographer Anna (Julia Roberts)
while living with Alice. Frustrated and in denial while
love’s bloom festers, Dan drunkenly indulges in leading
any unwary porn punters up cyber-garden paths. This brings
dermatologist Larry into initially embarrassing contact
with Anna. Unwittingly, Dan has introduced his love to hers…
And after that it all gets very messy - chronically, cynically
but very entertainingly messy.
as befits its theatrical roots, is an actor's piece, nothing
at all without the presence, charm, lies, hurt and the sexuality
of its leads. Each of the four convinces in equal parts
that being grown up is simply a case of being taller. Their
base emotional responses are triggered by each other in
a dizzying number of ways and the games they play reflect
the fact that their deepest desires were those for which
they still yearned before their 20th birthdays. Each is
after 'the other', the one that will emotionally fit snugly,
or in the males' case, someone who will fill a void, a tart
irony given the physical act of love. Need has never been
very high on a priority list for a healthy relationship
(to quote Cynthia Heimel who may have quoted someone else
for the title of one of her collected essays, "If You
Can't Live Without Me, Why Aren't You Dead Yet?") but
boy, does this quartet play the trump cards of that nasty
little need game.
most grown up of the four, or at least the one who seems
to know herself and her desires better than the rest, is
Anna. The artist whose photographic work merits some success
is played by Julia Roberts and she plays her damaged, a
one-time victim of male physical abuse. Her cynicism towards
men in general or specifically men's behaviour doesn't seem
to extend to her excluding them from her desires. Roberts
plays the character with total and believable realism. She
is the surprise of the film simply because of the contrasts.
In the neighbouring cinema, in Ocean's
12, she's on screen playing herself
for probably over fifteen million dollars (a million a minute
perhaps) - and with respect, she's not being pushed by Soderbergh's
whimsical star party. Mike Nichols, no slouch with actors,
has corkscrewed Roberts' acting core out. She fits Anna
like a glove and although she is known for being the darling
of Hollywood, her features here are gaunt and sallow. There's
not much a make up artist can do about the iconic features
(let’s face it, all four of the quartet are babes
in one way or another) but Roberts plays hurt convincingly.
It's a step (and a turn) in the right direction for someone
who wants to exercise and hone her craft and not merely
maintain a right to the copyright on Hollywood’s highest
female earner. If Roberts continues to be this savvy in
her choices, she may well make that transition from 'silver
screen icon' to 'golden girl'. She's been at the top of
her tree (Mary Reilly notwithstanding)
for a long time now. Choosing parts in human dramas is a
Law's Dan is the little boy of the four. If he wears his
heart on his sleeve, every other body part is geared to
deceive for what he judges he cannot live without. Blithely
believing that lying is just the currency of the world (a
cynical line - OK, maybe wisdom), coming from Dan, it feels
like a four-year old saying 'fuck'. It's like someone or
some movie (not the world or any worldly experience) has
taught him this oh-so valuable insight. He is woefully unaware
that his first relationship in Closer is
built on a whole box of tissue-like untruths. This is something
he comes to understand very late in the day. Dan is the
female man, the sensitive one to Larry’s more brutish
machismo. He's still mercilessly and rather pathetically
driven by his sexual identity. His urge for in flight peanuts
is strong. His needs seem to be more physical than spiritual
(if there is such a thing as a spiritual side to these characters).
His demands for honesty are merely slates to be wiped clean
to he can slot his emotional attachments and detachments
into place before embarking on another relationship. And
yet, it's still Jude Law and all the baggage he and we bring
to the cinema with us. He's certainly ubiquitous right now
and like Roberts, wise to play flawed human beings in dramatic
movies. Playing Errol Flynn in The
Aviator doesn't count though I'm
informed that Flynn was no angel. Ahem. I'm not sure whether Sky Captain’s business merited a
sequel but he has the charm, grace and charisma for any
romantic, heroic lead. It's just more interesting seeing
these pin-up thespians get hung up on real human issues.
movie's spine is provided by the innocent of the four. Ironically
a stripper in a previous time frame, Alice is driven to
the same seedy occupation after Dan's rejection. Having
just seen Leon: The Director's Cut it's
a very odd experience seeing little Natalie Portman blossom
into Alice (or 'plane' Jane) in less than a week. Blossom's
not the word as she settles down, legs apart, platinum blonde
bewigged, and opens a crotch flap for the visual delight
of Larry, down on his emotional luck. Maybe blossom is the
word if William Randolph Hearst's nickname for his lover's
pudendum is anything to go by. 'Rosebud' anyone? The innocent
stripper is a staple if not a woeful cliché in movie
lore but Portman's energy and sexuality combined with the
vulnerability of youth makes her the emotional barometer
of Closer. She's the blank canvas who’s
made more colourful from her release though as pointed out
by Sight and Sound, the final shot does veer towards
a rather tacky commercial for perfume. I don't consider
Portman's acting duties in George Lucas' woeful prequels
as anything like work. Besides, we know she can act. The
'love affair' in Attack of the Clones was
execrable. Now if there was a character who deserves to
be Leia Organa's (soon to be Princess) mum, then Anna's
played by Bond contender of the month and one time King
Arthur, Clive Owen, is the John C. Reilly (in Magnolia based in L.A.) of Closer's London. He's
the big guy, paralysed by his own emotional dependence and
yet cunning and wily enough to shrug off weakness when calculation
is required to get his own way. In many ways his is the
most sympathetic character though at times, you'd be hard
pressed to find anything sympathetic about any of them.
The way he plays Jude Law's Dan is nothing short of psychic.
It's as if he understands what Dan's needs are where Dan
is blind to some obvious pit falls that Larry almost lovingly
sets up. On the eve of his split up with his then wife Anna,
emotions are running high and Anna makes an offhand remark
questioning why sex is so important to men. His reply is
telling. "Because I'm a fucking caveman!" he bellows.
And he's right. He is. He needs to own the woman he partners,
needs to 'use' her sexually. Not sure about the clubbing
over the head and dragging by the pigtails into a cave but
Owen plays the brutish Larry with some grace. But again,
his male urges towards women are several rents in his armour.
Faced with Dan's ex, Anna, performing for him (anything
goes but no touching), Larry all but breaks down, desperate
for honesty and emotional stability. It's only near the
end we realise that because of a silly quirk of 'parental
taste' fate, just when Anna is honest with Larry, he doesn't
see it, doesn't catch the single moment of honesty when
it rears up and begs to be recognised.
there's the sex.
there were a fifth character in Closer it would be sex. Not that there is anything too explicit
in the film (there is a cyber-chat of intensifying vulgarity
that made one patron walk out of the screening I attended
shaking his head mumbling about having been "born too
early for that sort of thing." I couldn't figure out
whether he was relieved or pissed off at missing the internet
porno boat). But sex does tend to dominate proceedings.
Both Dan and Larry are so focussed on the peanuts or rather
who else is where I alone should be and was it better for
you with him? that they metaphorically (and in Dan's place)
literally miss the plane. The male psyche seems to be hotwired
into the sexual arena, much the same way an engine is reliant
on its spark plugs - not to wax too metaphorically mechanical.
It seems to be the females who can see beyond the orgasm. Closer doesn't offer any alternative difference
between the sexes and maybe there is none but an old saying
comes to mind after witnessing how each of the characters
cut themselves loose from what they believe are restrictive
butcher with the sharpest knife has the kindest heart…"
four have sharp knives and all four spend a significant
time sharpening them on the pumice stone of perceived honesty.
But one man's honesty is another woman's lies and today's
honesty isn't necessarily tomorrow's. So let's use other
words. In Closer, honesty is a term used
to describe relative selfishness. And in every way, as we
change, we re-define ourselves and hope that others re-define
in simpatico or else they suffer the finality of the blade.
Free from knives and those that wield them, Alice saunters
down a New York street, apparently unconcerned with the
adoring male rubber-neckers. She has youth on her side.
She will bounce back. Larry, Dan and Anna, however, are
still in London, still wedged inside their own worlds, still
trying to figure things out.