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Review: “Closer” (2004)

September 27, 2008

“Closer” is a story about four people who form two couples and wreck their relationships with infidelity.  Or, perhaps, “Closer” is a story about the idiocy of believing in love.  Or maybe “Closer” is just a reason to be vulgar about the things in life which are always painted up as simple and natural.  Whatever the preferred definition (and it varies greatly person-to-person), “Closer” is a film that necessitates unflinching performances.  The four characters—Dan (Jude Law), Alice (Natalie Portman), Larry (Clive Owen), and Anna (Julia Roberts)—spend the entire film speaking only to each other.  “Closer” is the essence of a  “talky picture”, and it holds itself together by the sheer talent of its actors.

Most notable in the film is Julia Roberts.  America’s Sweetheart becomes foul-mouthed and morally grey.  Her trademark smile is rarely used, and there’s nothing light or carefree about Anna.  Picking a scene to spotlight Roberts’s portrayal is difficult.  Anna is complex and closed-up, and so much of what Roberts does is small bits of business.  The way she almost looks Owen in the eyes during a pivotal scene in their shared apartment; the quiet, uneven tone she adopts for any conversation involving emotion—these small touches take what could be an obvious attempt to break out of an established character and make it a full-fledged rush of talent from an unexpected sector.  It makes me wonder, watching Roberts’s bitter, wrenching performance, what kind of an actress has been lost to the genre of romantic comedies.

Clive Owen, forever a strong presence, weaves together the character of Larry with a precision that is almost unnoticeable.  He takes a generally kind but slightly misguided man and pulls you into his slow, imperceptible breakdown into full-on bastard with elegance and understatement.  Owen has been cast again and again as the tough guy who breaks heads.  Larry is a man with a broken head who is trying to be tough.  It’s a tour-de-force performance precisely for his lack of force.  Owen’s usual take on simmering rage only comes up once in the film, and it’s put to fierce use opposite Roberts.  It’s a five-minute scene that will stick in your head for the rest of the film and beyond, and you’ll walk away from the movie amazed that Owen can be so very subtle and careful when he’s onscreen.

Don’t think that the praise being heaped onto Roberts and Owen means that Law and Portman didn’t hand out amazing performances as well.  “Closer” wouldn’t work at all if half the cast was crap, and Law and Portman are both talented actors.  However, where Roberts and Owen play against type, Jude Law plays a variation on his standby character of a smug jerk.  He’s doesn’t play it badly, and he doesn’t play it wrong.  He plays it as he always plays it—with talent, charisma, and ease—but as I already knew he could play the character well, my attention was drawn more to Owen and Roberts.

Portman’s Alice was her first adult role in a film, and I wasn’t at all surprised when the role turned out to be foul-mouthed and borderline raunchy.  Where Law’s smug jerk is par for the course, an actor’s first starring role as an adult with a foul mouth and no moral compass is also par for the course.  But that’s not a hit on Portman.  Where some actresses would look uncomfortable or out of place throwing out the kind of dialogue “Closer” wallows in, she doesn’t even flinch.  I believed everything she said because Portman didn’t look nervous or ashamed to say it.  That’s a lot to ask for a first-time adult role, and Portman delivers without having to work at it.

It comes down to this:  If you believe true love conquers all and love is all you need, you need to flee in the other direction.  If you consider yourself a realist and know that not everyone is a happy person, see “Closer”.  You’ll probably want a very hot shower after the fact, but you’ll probably come away amazed at how much you liked it.

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