I know what I'm supposed to think: "Closer" is a sophisticated film, with clever dialogue and the kind of fractured narration that's become vogue, as of late. It's an American attempt at a foreign film, with an offbeat take on a situation and lots of intellectual game-playing. And I do admire "Closer" for what it attempts. But I have to say that while it struck me as a noble experiment that may work on a number of levels, entertainment isn't one of them.
Perhaps I approached it with too high of expectations. After all, the screenplay was written by Patrick Marber, who wrote the play upon which it was based--one that had been all the rage in London. Marber also gave us "Notes on a Scandal," which was a deliciously realized relationship drama that sustained tension throughout. Then too, "Closer" was directed by none other than that master of domestic dysfunction, Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"). When you cast Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, and Clive Owen in this tale of two adulterous couples, you'd think it would be a huge success. But . . . .
Despite Academy Award nominations for Portman and Owen and decent acting from Roberts and Law, the script serves up a heaping portion of confusion masquerading as edgy narrative structure, and gives us cheesy melodrama under the guise of sophisticated cinema. Let me explain.
Typical relationship dramas and tales of adultery steam up the screen with passion. There's implied or graphic lovemaking and lots of screen-time devoted to explaining how two people fall in (or out of) love. Typical dramas like this zero in on the passionate high points in relationships and adulterous trysts, the actual coming together. In "Closer," however, Marber takes a radically different approach. He almost exclusively focuses on the low points in these relationships, and, even more risky, he chooses to show these people after the fact, talking about passion and making love rather than actually doing much of it. They shout at each other, and they talk dirty, begging for details of the unfaithfulness. "Was he a good fuck? Did you like it? Did you come?" And so on. Throughout the film, we see the four characters mostly talking or shouting about their passion, rather than actually seeing any of it. The film gets its "R" rating for nudity from scenes in a strip club, not the relationships.
All this makes for a praiseworthy experiment, but I don't think it was very successful. We never really get a full sense of why these people came together in the first place, because their encounters are shown in such visual shorthand. As Marber and Nichols fast-forward four months, one year, or more at a time, viewers are also left to figure out what's happened in those fashionably large off-screen gaps. Again, that's an interesting concept, but it reminds me of Paul Buchman's challenge of filming "the wind" for Yoko Ono on an episode of "Mad About You." Borderline crazy, dead-center boring. A little of it goes a long way, and once we realize that we are seeing the chatty aftermath following off-screen encounters, their dialogue starts to sound like blah, blah, blah.
Then there's the cheese factor. From the opening, with it's "I can't take my eyes off you" song and perfume-commercial style of filming, we're hoping that the whole movie won't be like this. We see Dan (Law) make eye contact with a woman he'll later learn is Alice (Portman), and then she's hit by a car. "Hello, stranger," she says when she comes to and sees him leaning over her battered body. It's hard not to think of "An Affair to Remember," which Marber might have been playfully alluding to here, but that was one whale of a melodramatic affair. We learn that Alice was stripping in New York when a relationship got too dicey and she split for London. Dan, meanwhile, works in "the Siberia of journalism" as an obituary writer. He has a girlfriend, Ruth, but because we fast forward and see these two together, we have to piece together how Ruth fell out of the picture and mentally imagine Alice and Dan making love . . . or at least fashioning a relationship of some sort together. All this is really left to the viewers, who may imagine wildly different scenarios. The point is, we're not given much back story at any one point in this film, which makes the narrative as superficial as the four characters or their dialogue, which can be coy and stilted.
"Do you have any children?"
"Would you like some?"
"Yes, but not today."
"Come here. You're beautiful."
"I don't kiss strange men."
"Neither do I."
Fast-forward and Dan has written a novel based on his girlfriend, Alice's wild life. He ends up going to a photographer's studio where he's posing for Anna (Roberts), and he begins an affair with her. Fast-forward again, and we see Dan typing away on his laptop in an Internet personals chatroom, pretending to be Anna. He sets up a meeting at The Aquarium, the title she gave him for his novel, and soon Anna is having an affair with a doctor named Larry (Owen), whom Dan basically set her up with. Before it's all over, the four of them have affairs (all off-camera, off-stage) in every possible combination except girl-on-girl and guy-on-guy. And they're all bitter about the kettle of stew they've brewed up for each other, and we're suppose to feel . . . what?
Not entertained, that's for sure, and not sympathetic. These people are losers and posers who deserve what they get. It's hard to think of them as real flesh-and-blood people, rather than simply clever characters constructed for the purpose of a literary experiment. Yes, that's the trade-off with experimental work, but that doesn't make it a palatable one. I appreciate the daring nature of the screenplay, but in the end, it was just another movie that didn't entertain me enough to make me keep from squirming in discomfort or looking at the clock to see how much time was left. That's kind of sad for a 104-minute film.
Blu-ray is the consolation prize when movies aren't as captivating as you'd hoped. The Hi-Def 1080p picture looks great, with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio filling out the screen of a 16x9 widescreen television. There's great detail, great sharpness, with sufficient black levels and color saturation.
Once again, the sound quality on the Blu-ray is very, very good, with English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio the featured soundtrack option. As in the best soundtracks, this one has a wide spread across the speakers that fills the room naturally with sound, and perfectly balanced levels of bass and treble. What's interesting is that there's also an Italian PCM 5.1, with additional options in English, French, Italian, Russian, and English DES (descriptive audio track) in Dolby Digital 5.1, with a list of subtitle options that's longer than the menu at a good restaurant: English, English SDH, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Czech, Polish, Croatian, Slovene, Turkish, Greek, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Thai, Korean.
I really wanted to hear from Nichols or Marber, but the only bonus feature is a music video of Damien Rice performing "The Blower's Daughter." That's it. Big deal.
As a narrative experiment, "Closer" is praiseworthy. But as a film about passion, it's surprisingly mono-emotional. It's as if the characters in "Closer" had as hard a time negotiating the challenging script as viewers might.