Monday, January 10, 2011


If the amoral bed-hoppers that make up the bulk of daytime tabloid talk shows were articulate, intelligent, impossibly attractive, and rich; their lives might be something like the lives of the four spiritually damaged protagonists of Closer, Mike Nichols' searing look at the pain people cause one another in the name of love.
Julia Roberts as Anna
Jude Law as Dan
Natalie Portman as Alice
Clive Owen as Larry
The tony trappings of upscale London fail to mask the rather ugly games of sexual one-upmanship that characterize the entwining relationships of the film's four lead characters. Based on a play by Patrick Marber (who wrote the equally perceptive and acidic Notes on a Scandal - 2006), Closer is a sexual roundelay that skewers romantic myth and lays waste those who pursue love as though it were part of a self-fulfillment program. Here, the believers of love at first sight; those souls whose religion is passion, chemistry, and the heart wanting what it wants - are revealed to be the ones most apt to give themselves license to lie, deceive, and and inflict pain, if all is done in the name of love.
Changing Partners

Having explored the ins and outs of caustic relationships in both Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Carnal Knowledge (1971),  Mike Nichols is cinema's unofficial frontline correspondent in the war between the sexes. With wit and candor, he goes to places of rare honesty in human relations and somehow finds ways of making us see parts of ourselves in some of the most odious characters. He has a gift for shining a compassionate but cold light on some of the worst aspects of human interaction; and in the process, reinforces the notion that sometimes even at our most monstrous, most of us are rarely ever less than just human.
"Hello, Stranger"

The language. Though biting and brutal, the dialog in Closer is too clever to be real:

Portman: “I don’t eat fish.”
Law: “Why not?”
Portman: “Fish piss in the sea.”
Law: “So do children.”
Portman: “I don’t eat children, either."

- but direct and to the point in revealing character and the small ways we use words to protect ourselves, wound others, and ultimately conceal. The film is as much a treat for the ears as it is for the eyes.
The Truth: 
“Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off. But it’s better if you do.”

Years before Black Swan Natalie Portman proved that she was more than just a sci-fi geek pinup. Though outrageously beautiful and possessing a natural star quality, Portman is refreshingly low on self-consciousness and unafraid to go to the uglier places a character might take her. Cast cannily as the kind of male fantasy dream girl she's been marketed as since her career began, Portman reveals levels of intelligence and will that are not often associated with waifish objects-of-affection. She is never less than compelling throughout and, for me, at least, virtually wipes the rest of the accomplished cast off the screen.
 The Lie

At one point in the film, Portman's character describes the photographic artwork of rival Julia Roberts as “A bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully.” She might just as well have been talking about the film she's appearing in.
Closer is indeed a film about unpleasant people acting unpleasantly, but everyone is shot so lovingly they practically glow. As a fan of vintage movies, my heart has a special place for that time in history (pre-late-50s realism) when movies were populated exclusively by those humanoid gods and goddesses we called movie stars. They didn't look like anyone we'd ever seen and the world they inhabited onscreen didn't even remotely look like the one we inhabited. It was a hyper-reality that created a dreamscape to build fantasies on.
Closer, with its gleaming sets and uniformly gorgeous cast, puts that old-time glamour in the service of presenting a merciless look at the dark side of romantic desire.

The one scene I never tire of watching is a sequence that takes place in a private room of a strip club where Natalie Portman and Clive Owen verbally spar about love, lust, and longing.
It is amazing on so many levels. From a purely technical standpoint, the astounding virtuosity of the camera angles alone makes for a unitary lesson in filmmaking.
It's funny, tense, sexy as hell, and oddly moving as these two enact a mating dance of the lonely.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Natalie Portman sets the screen aflame, either.

From everything I've written thus far, I've made it sound as though Closer were an anti-romantic comedy (black comedy) and basically down on love. The truth is, like that other favorite of mine, Two for the RoadCloser is at its core a deeply romantic film. Chiefly because it dares to show the bare bones of relationships and dramatizes the hard work and self-sacrifice necessary to achieve true intimacy with another. The four protagonists in Closer all fumble about blindly seeking love without knowing how to return it, demanding love without earning it, and giving love without committing to it.
Love Gets Ugly 
It deflates the romantic ideal (much of it movie-based) of the instant attraction, the animal connection that sparks all great romances. Closer dares to posit that those who indulge this conceit are in love with the idea of love and are unprepared for (or lack the maturity) required to become "closer" to another individual.
To my way of thinking, a film like Closer gives love the respect it deserves.

Not everybody has the stomach for movies like this. Indeed, the public stayed well away from this film when it was released. But the relationships I grew up around (and I dare say a good many of the relationships I see today) look more like the ones depicted here than the inherently dishonest, wish-fulfillment fantasies of The Bridges of Madison County or Under the Tuscan Sun. That may be my curse or blessing, I don't know. But what I do know is that I've seen more tears shed and people hurt over the pursuit of false ideals than I ever have over people coming to terms with the fact that love takes courage, selflessness, and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Law: “Deception is brutal. I’m not pretending otherwise”
Closer is an adult story about the responsibilities of real love. That it tells its story with wit, intelligence and style only serve to make it one of my fave rave films of all time. A modern classic.
Natalie Portman - Stopping Traffic

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. I've just read a bunch of your reviews and in each of them there comes a line, nearly always at the 3/4 mark, when you seem to take a leap and absolutely nail what the movie is about. In this review it was this line:

    The four protagonists in "Closer" all fumble about blindly seeking love without knowing how to return it, demanding love without earning it, and giving love without committing to it.

    You're more casual than Pauline Kael but you do the same three things I liked best about Kael: you tell the story of the movie in a way that somehow recreates the pleasure of watching the movie; your judgment isn't limited to liking or not liking the film, but is engaged throughout; and like Kael, you had an extraordinary ability to pull it all together and suddenly say what the film is about.

    The only time you go off the mark is when you talk about Natalie Portman.

  2. Hi Ed Carlevale
    Thank you very much for visiting my blog, and an even bigger thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful (and extremely complimentary) comment! Truly, aside from how generous you were to me, you really make some very interesting observations about film criticism in general. I blanch at the mere thought of my writing referenced in the same paragraph as Pauline Kael's, but you so very kindly call attention to what I strive for in these personal movie reflections. Your comment gives me hope that, at least upon occasion, I manage to hit my mark

    And I understand about the Portman thing. It really made me laugh because I confess to having very little critical objectivity where Natalie Portman and Julie Christie are concerned.
    Thanks again for stopping really made my day!

  3. Ive read so many scathing reviews of this movie, I agree wholehardedly with your review and love the movie more with repeated viewings. Natalie portman. Is breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking in this role..I simply adore her as Alice. I will see every movie she ever makes. Great review, I am bookmarking you!

  4. It pleases me a great deal to know you enjoyed my post and it's nice to hear from someone who gets as much out of this film as I did. I can never fathom public tastes so I don't know why "Closer" left so many so cold. Me, I think it's a bit of a gem full of some really marvelous performances. And I too think Portman is a heartbreaking in this role. Objectivity be damned! She's amazing!
    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  5. Have you seen her segment in ' Paris Je t'aime? Its called Fauborg St Denis...her beauty is astonishing

    1. Being as fond of the 60s and 70s as I am, I don't really see that many contemporary movies, let alone purchase them, but "Paris Je t'aime" is one in my collection. I love the entire film, but Natalie Portman's sequence is one of my favorites. Like a Julie Christie, I appreciate her beauty, but I'm happier that it isn't all window dressing. Portman, to me, is always a very arresting actress to watch. Thanks for bringing that film up!

  6. I love this movie so much. The strip club scene with Portman and Owen is one of my favorite scenes ever filmed. She's so amazing in this movie.

    1. Hello
      So nice to hear from someone who likes this film as much as I do. I've seen it at least twice since I originally posted this, and I keep finding new things to enjoy. And yes, isn't that strip club scene something? Portman just surprised the hell out of me with this movie. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Hello again!, Ken. I'm glad you reviewed both movies. I have to see Black Swan again, I saw it when I was going through a bad time so...I don't think I was concentrating on the film/ story. your review will help. I majored in theater, performed in many shows. what I did see in the movie was the love and hurt that artists go through (a dancer, actor, painter) in creating. I had a therapist who said, "you're a people pleaser", want to make everyone happy, etc" person. I was amazed of how that proved true in being an actor. actors mostly (not all the time) but most are looking for "attention" that they are lacking in real life. they can't succeed at what they (or I, since I felt this way) perceive as worthy, important, attractive, self confidence...etc. (you know what I mean). the scenes I remember so well are with Natalie and Vincent Cassell. You put your hands into the director's because you trust him/her without seeing the big picture. of course good ol' Vincent is a control freak/manipulator/"let's see what happens when I push their buttons"...directors. I encountered one in college, it wasn't cool and to this day...I tell my friends if I were to see him today I would strangle him with the nearest piece of lamp chord. (kidding, of course...but that's how much hat I have for him, after everything he did to me). of course, Natalie is the ultimate people pleaser..doesn't have the wisdom or self confidence or bravery to decide "this ain't worth it...girl, bye!!!" and get the hell out!!! I've noticed that Natalie plays roles with those things in common...trying to make others happy but not asking herself what SHE wants...the girl who you "can't believe" is so unhappy or single or full of self doubt because they have such great beauty (after all, we all know that beauty can get you anywhere in life...yeah, right). Natalie's character sacrifices how she "feels" or how scared and hurt she is, to make: the director happy, her mom happy, the girl/lesbian happy, and batshit crazy,"im old and it's over for me" Winona Ryder (who I think was underused in this film...but i'm a fan so...) people who have never experienced "acting" "dancing" art of any kind...misunderstand that artists have a "gift" or "oh, they're so magical, I could never do that" or "it doesn't look that hard anyone COULD do it, I Could!!!" with what is really very hard work, constant sacrifice, being constantly judged, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in order to keep yourself sane!! the performer/artist has to learn technique to achieve "perfection" isn't "magic" or a "gift". In some ways, acting/dancing could be perceived as one of the most dangerous (psychologically, physical)"professions" a person could have. I definitely saw that the first time I saw this movie. maybe the director was simply trying to show the beauty in art and the ugliness, and how the artist is constantly balancing between the two to the point of maintaining their sanity. I'm a performer (not anymore) so I know this, but so many do not. Like you said, and I agree with you...Black Swan is a horror story how commitment, dedication, good intentions, talent and the beauty of art can ultimately destroy a person. I hope i'm not being too "dark" or (ha ha) "Black"

    1. Hello Anonymous!
      Well, even without having seen it in a long while, it sounds as though you got quite a lot out of "Black Swan" (indeed, your observations are so goo you should post your exact same comments in that post's comments section.
      I think that a great many movies that do well not to "explain" themselves to the viewer, have the benefit of being several things at once. For instance, I don't think any two people has to have the same experience of "Black Swan."
      Not being female, and thus only able to perhaps relate to a certain side of the dance world just so much (the way it encourages a kind of arrested development in dancers- keeping them children and easily manipulated and used by the "adult" choreographer or dance director-But your personal experience informs the film in a way relevant to you.
      You definitely aren't going too dark, and I think you got a lot out of the film. Especially in your description of the Portman character.
      Really terrific observations and perceptions! Thanks for sharing them!

      Oh, and I'm in total agreement that the "magic" of art - the appearance of effortless beauty and perfection - is mostly a great deal of hard, grueling work and self evisceration. That's why I think there is always a difference between a technician (someone who masters form) and a real artist (once who masters both form and the investment of self).

  8. I may have accidentally deleted my review :(