Film Friday: Mike Nichols' 'Closer' with Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Natalie Portman & Clive Owen

By Daniel S Levine,

There are films where words are more violent than physical actions. One of the greatest of these is Mike Nichols' 1966 debut film Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on the Edward Albee play. Thirty-eight years later, Nichols, a member of the elite EGOT club, adapted Patrick Marber's Closer, another film where every word is thought out to create the most damage. The resulting film, released in 2004, is proof that occasionally, they do make them like they used to.

Closer is similar to Virginia Woolf, in that it centers on just four characters. But that's it. Marber, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on four people who start out as complete strangers. It's all about coincidences, how a person is supposed to prove their love for another and what it means to trust. Writer Dan (Jude Law) is at the center of this ring of strangers. Closer opens with him meeting Alice (Natalie Portman) after she is hit while crossing a street in London. They flirt in the emergency room and begin dating.

Time passes. Dan is getting his picture taken by Anna (Julia Roberts) and it's love at first sight. Unfortunately, he's still with Alice. Anna says that she can't see Dan again. In a fit of anger, Dan has fun playing a practical joke on a person in an online sex chat room. That person turns out to be Larry (Clive Owen), who is completely fooled. As instructed, he goes to an aquarium, a place Dan picked because Anna said she liked to go there. Coincidentally, Anna is there, so she meets Larry.

From then on, Closer is a carousel of sex, mistrust and disastrous mistakes. Each of the four second-guess each other. Whenever there is calm and two of them seem set for life, it suddenly changes. None of them can really stand a “normal” life. They never seem to know what they really want and when they have what could be it, they blow it up. Marber explores the insecurities of these intricate characters and none of them are more insecure than the person who started it all, Dan.

Nichols drew out some really incredible performances from his four stars, who all prove to be up to the change of delivering such difficult dialogue. Of course, with Dan as the lead here, Jude Law is expected to do the most and he's actually very good. Law has some incredible moments, where he always has to be the weaker character in every scene. He links these three other people to him, but they all have a bigger impact than he has on them. Once they are introduced, there's nothing that Dan can do to change them. They all make his flaws clear as day, even as Dan is completely oblivious to his own flaws. That moment of horror on Law's face at the end of the film when he realizes that he's lost even Alice is likely the best piece of acting in the film.

However, Law wasn't the one nominated for an Oscar and neither was Roberts, who does give a nice, nuanced performance. Natalie Portman and Clive Owen were picked out, both getting Supporting nods and even winning Golden Globes. Their performances really show off both their talents. Owen shines as a guy you want to hate, but is also easily sympathetic elsewhere. Portman is clearly relishing the opportunity to work with Nichols and talent at this level. She's fooling everyone, but what keeps the audience off that trail is that she never acts like it.

On Home Video: Closer has been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Both editions only include the music video for Damien Rice's “The Blower's Daughter,” a really silly song used at both ends of the film. If any film screams for a commentary from its writer, this is it.

When it comes to film, Nichols' has had a rocky career, but Closer was a return to the style of filmmaking that made him famous. It's a smart film, yet still easily accessible to all audiences. Closer asks what we are supposed to expect from another person, especially when it comes to love. “Where is this love? I can't see it, I can't touch it. I can't feel it. I can hear it,” Alice says in a far more fatal line than the film's most famous one. “I can hear some words, but I can't do anything with your easy words.” Words may have meanings, but it's the feelings that matter.

You can talk about this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page. You can check out past Film Friday columns here.

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