Closer (2004)

In a world so immediately connected to everything around it, the mystical nature of the bonds that can connect two people in everyday life is a fleeting experience. Closer opens as the lives of two people collide, but it’s not too long before these two begin to drift apart.  Here, sex and love have both the power to bring people together and to tear them asunder.

Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) bond after Alice gets hit by a car and Dan takes her to a hospital. As the two begin to get to know each other over the next few hours, the potential for love pops its head out, but the next moment the film has moved beyond, jumped in time. Now Dan is more interested in a photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts) and when she turns him down, he inadvertently pranks her by sending Larry (Clive Owen) across Anna’s path through life.

While the film gives us glimpses of the progression of these relationships, it also takes enormous leaps in times, jumping through months, sometimes even a year or two, in the lives of these characters. This drastic shift serves a thematic and dramatic purpose in showing the frailty of these relationships as the next scene can have a character’s view of another person entirely shift.

The problem is that while the film places these characters in empathetic situations, where emotionally devastating moments arises, these jumps in times and unexplained shifts in characters make for a cast of characters that become very hard to empathize with. It’s an almost clinical approach to what feels like a deeply emotional and gut level storytelling, dissecting random moments in these people’s life and putting them under a microscope.

This could be a deliberate act on Mike Nicols’ interpretation of the play by Patrick Marber. The distance of these characters adds yet another level of frailty to the relationships, the fragility of the audience’s relationship to these fictional characters. While it is possible to feel for them in the moment, the way they shift and evolve makes it hard for the audience to sort out and reconcile these characters, making them often very different from the person they empathized with only a few scenes before.

Part of the issue lies with some of the performers. Julia Roberts suffers from giving a very deadpan and surface level performance that seems to have almost no passion or nuance behind it. Clive Owen, while great at chewing up the scenery, almost exaggerates his performance to the point of being buffoonish. Luckily, Jude Law and Natalie Portman make up for this lack of talent and give some impassioned performances.

It’s a film that ends up being more interesting for the nuance between the distinction between sex and love, and how the acts can often be at complete odds with each other. The sexiest scenes in the film are the ones that are almost devoid of love, and the greatest expressions of love exist almost outside the prospect of sex. The way to two forces end up pulling these characters creates an inner tension between all the characters, a division between the heart and the libido.

On that level, Closer is a fantastic examination of adult relationships, but the more grander ideas of the bonds between characters never quite works, in part because the film seems to determined to distance the audience from these characters. Somewhere in here is a gem of a film, it also serves as a reminder of similar films such as Magnolia which take the same idea and create far more emotionally involving and intricate film.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing