Four-way love story, with razor blades

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Four-way love story, with razor blades

Breakup conversations among civilized people often include some variation of the old cop-out “It’s not you, it’s me,” which was invented to spare the initiator having to go into detail about the reasons. You won’t hear it in “Closer.”
The four people whose emotional round-robin makes up this lacerating movie seldom choose pity over truth. When they devastate each other, they do it without relish (mostly), but with a commitment to full disclosure that sometimes borders on the inhuman.
Before telling his girlfriend that he’s been cheating on her for a year, a novelist (Jude Law) announces, “This will hurt,” in a tone he might use to say he’d like croutons on his salad. When his girlfriend (Natalie Portman), howling in agony, asks why he’s waited a year to tell her, he says, “Cowardice.” You can’t fault his honesty, now that he’s decided to use it.
An unsparingly intimate adaptation of a stage play, “Closer” really has no characters but its central four ― the other two are a photographer (Julia Roberts) and a doctor (Clive Owen) ― and the substance of it is conversations in which someone, onstage or off, is coming in for a lot of pain. One character pursues another, despite one (or both) of them being involved with a third or fourth; the pursuee resists, tells the pursuer how despicable he’s being, but finally goes along with it. Twice, these conversations happen while the betrayed party (or parties) is in the next room. Even the more sympathetic of the four turn out to be capable of detached cruelty, if only in self-defense. The obvious irony is that it’s the need not to be alone that’s driving all this cold-bloodedness.
The director is Mike Nichols, who made his film debut 40 years ago with “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” ―which, as others have noted, was also a stage adaptation with a cast of four in which couples used emotional scalpels on one another. In terms of sheer volume, the damage in “Closer” doesn’t approach the apocalyptic thunder of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in that movie; that was an era of four-martini lunches, booze-soaked faculty parties and stay-at-home wives whose ambitions were subliminated into their husbands’ careers. Naturally, glass was going to get broken. The characters in “Closer” are tasteful, urbane professionals (for the most part), autonomous and sexually liberated; they seem to have fully internalized the modern lesson that they’re responsible for their own happiness, which may have something to do with how prepared they are to discard their lovers.
The writing is tight, compelling and clever; often, a new scene moves us further ahead in time than we’ve realized, then drops a startling piece of information to let us know it. The cinematography is consistently engaging, part of the reason being that the cast is nice to look at. And all four actors are excellent ―even Julia Roberts. It’s Natalie Portman’s character who lingers most in the memory, though. Lied to and abandoned by Law, she seems to be the one of the four who’s most vulnerable to pain, but eventually proves to be better than any of them at keeping her heart behind glass. It might or might not be significant that she’s a stripper.


Closer
Drama / English
104 min.
Now playing


by David Moll
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