“Tell me something true,” one habitual liar asks of another in Closer, Mike Nichols’s sleek, skillfully acted adaptation of Patrick Marber’s glibly entertaining hit play. It’s no coincidence that the conversation takes place in a strip club: Closer‘s horny philanderers are as compelled to tell—or be told—the truth as they are to cheat. In this tastefully sordid bourgeois hell, with its Pottery Barn furniture and Damien Rice music, sadomasochism is practiced not with whips and chains but with cruel revelations timed for maximum hurt. Prized for its violence, directness functions as deadly weapon and toxic aphrodisiac—it charges every exchange with a hint of danger and confers on even the shittiest behavior a semblance of honor. Brute honesty is simply the purest form of emotional deceit. As in Neil LaBute’s punitive comedies, amoral marionettes are steered through a moralistic universe, and all this unrestrained candor comes at a price: Closer argues that the truth, if not exactly unknowable, is something we’re usually better off not knowing.
Wildly acclaimed upon its West End premiere (slightly less so when it transferred to Broadway), Marber’s 1997 play is a relic of the mid-’90s nasty-chic epidemic (emblematized stateside by LaBute) and the haute yuppie “Cool Britannia” wave that swept Britpop and Tony Blair to power. Hermetically focused on an interlocking pair of couples, the drama is structured as a competitive round-robin, with almost every scene taking the form of a gladiatorial two-hander. The film opens with Dan (Jude Law), a London obituary writer, rescuing coquettish pink-haired stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) from a crosswalk accident, and carrying on a cutesy flirtation from hospital waiting room to double-decker bus, during which both reveal that they are romantically attached.
In this agonized La Ronde, the start of every relationship marks the end of at least two others. Progressing in rhythmic ellipses, spanning several years in a dozen or so scenes, this diagram of sexual combat is plotted with geometric neatness and an unerring attention to symmetry. Marber’s screenplay excises the mundane substance of each relationship, concerning itself exclusively with the birth pangs and death throes. In the second scene, Dan, noticeably cockier and about to publish a novel based on his girlfriend Alice’s life, is having his photo taken by Anna (Julia Roberts), an elegant divorcée, whom he hits on with carnivorous insistence. Later, via an amusing if inexplicable cyberprank, Dan sets Anna up with Larry (Clive Owen), a chat-room-trolling dermatologist.
Sparks duly fly in all directions, but the characters’ motivations are as dubious as their actions are ferocious: Dan wants Anna because she rejects him. Anna wants Larry because he’s bad for her. Larry wants anything in a skirt including, briefly, Alice, who, if we believe her, seems to steadfastly want Dan. On the face of it, Nichols is back in the war zone of Carnal Knowledge and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he certainly has a handle on the logistics of the quadrangle swap-meet—a quaintly titillating and essentially conservative subgenre, obsessed as it is with the rituals of coupling and uncoupling. (A staple of the newly liberated 1970s, it seems to be making a curious comeback—see also We Don’t Live Here Anymore.) But more than three decades after the frank sex-talk of Nichols’s early triumphs, Closer offers only a cozy and barely fashionable cynicism.
The actors do their best to overcome the fundamental emptiness, savoring the barbed dialogue that, in the move from stage to screen, has retained a certain fussy crispness. (Opening up the drama to various London locations hardly mitigates the airlessness—there are virtually no other speaking parts, which is fitting given the quartet’s seamless absorption in themselves and one another.) It’s doubly hard work for the women: Marber assigns his female characters (Americanized for the film) an aura of corrupted nobility; the men (still English) are at least multifaceted jerks. Struggling to animate a male-fantasy cliché, Portman fares worst, but Roberts, for the first time in years, shrewdly underacts, recognizing perhaps that her character is the most vaguely drawn. Law turns in a nimble portrait of intelligent narcissism, teetering—much like the film itself—between self-awareness and self-satisfaction. As the most obnoxious and least deluded character, Owen, who played Dan in a London production, stalks through the movie with a permanent leer. It’s a masterfully sleazy performance: In the showpiece meltdown, Larry badgers Anna into spilling graphic details about her affair with Dan, and uses her coerced confession to validate the force of his vicious rejoinder. (Even his incidental insults are inventively destructive, as when he spits at Dan: “You writer!”)
Closer casts a smugly amused eye on the human capacity for betrayal. But because it also seeks to congratulate its audience for its urbane unshockability, it never strays beyond the limits of middlebrow complacency. Alice accuses Anna’s sad, pretty, black-and-white portraits of perpetrating a “reassuring lie” (her exhibit is called “Strangers,” a title as pretentiously earnest as Closer is pretentiously ironic). Is Marber a knowing enough writer to have meant this as autocritique? He doesn’t exactly aestheticize misery but he does make cruelty fun.