[National Review Online, December 3, 2004]
This is about the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Everyone in the movie is sad, everybody cries, everybody (at one time or another) looks like they were knocked down by a garbage truck and dragged down an alley. This is also a movie that has a lot of sex-talk in it; not much action, but about as much explicit description of sexual activity that a script can contain. There might be a connection.
The title "Closer" is intended to mean intimacy, I think, as in "Come closer." But it might also mean the closing events that happen in relationships; lovers run into a moment that is a "closer" and they can’t go any further. There are four individuals who inaugurate and end relationships in "Closer," changing partners and then coming back again. One of the carry-overs from the successful stage play (by Patrick Marber, who adapted it for the screen) is that it feels like these four are the only people in the movie, which makes it a bit claustrophobic. It’s also extremely talky, a typical characteristic of plays as compared to film. Not a lot of car chases on stage. In "Closer" the writing is so complex and laden with symbolic intersections that it is nearly immobilized. There’s a struggle between actors doing their best to convey real human beings, and over-constructed elegant text ("Have you ever seen a human heart?!? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood!"), and things pretty much come to a standstill.
The first of several portentous themes appear in the opening scene, when Alice (Natalie Portman) and Dan (Jude Law), strangers approaching each other on a London sidewalk, lock eyes. Alice, unfortunately, doesn’t unlock in time to check whether a car is coming, and is knocked down in an intersection. She looks up at Dan from the street and says, "Hello, stranger."
If you hold onto your ticket stub, and make a notch every time there’s a reference to "strangers," you can keep track. Dan takes her to a clinic to get patched up and they begin a relationship, and when we jump forward a year we find he’s written a novel based on her salacious previous life as a stripper. Dan goes to have an author photo taken and is seriously, if inexplicably, smitten by a new stranger: photographer Anna Cameron (Julia Roberts). She is working on an exhibition of photos that she’s taken of random people in the street, which will be titled "Strangers." That night, Dan logs into a site called London SexAnon, which enables strangers to have instant-message sex. He initiates an encounter, bizarrely pretending to be Anna. (This scene has stumped many viewers and reviewers; why would the thoroughly hetero Dan pretend to be a woman in a sexual exchange? Yet he’s just written a novel based on imagining a woman’s sexual adventures. As Dan sits there typing, fully clothed in the afternoon, he doesn’t look at all aroused. He looks like a novelist doing research.) The stranger duped into thinking he’s chatting with a woman is Larry (Clive Owen). Pretend-Anna offers to meet Larry the next day at the aquarium. The next day Larry shows up and meets a stranger, the real Anna, there; after some initial bumbles, they hook up too.
OK, now start the other side of the ticket stub, and keep track of fish. Anna tells Dan his novel should be titled "The Aquarium." She meets Larry at an aquarium. Alice tells Dan she doesn’t eat fish. Dan buys Anna a fish balloon (I hope I’m getting this right; the interchangeable characters begin to slide around.) Larry announces, "Fish-you gotta respect ‘em."
Or you could monitor the "Skin" theme: Alice is a stripper, Larry is a dermatologist, Anna renders closeups of strangers’ pores. Or the "Death" theme: Dan writes obituaries, his Mom died when he was young, his editor dies during the story, and most evocative, he and Alice visit a garden dedicated to people who died saving the lives of others. Larry asks Alice the real name of a stripper who calls herself Venus; she replies, "Pluto."
If you had two more sides to the ticket, you could dedicate them to "Truth/Lies" and "Happiness/Sadness." When it’s thoroughly frayed, it will look like the poor travelers in this weeper, who verbalize their physical doings in the ugliest terms they can find, in ways designed to convey, and inflict pain. Wasn’t there a time this was caused "making love"?
Very little love is made in this movie, and that seems to be the point. Lost people keep trying to connect with each other’s plumbing, and are bewildered when they remain empty and alone. Director Mike Nichols made another very sad movie about the intersection of sex and love, "Carnal Knowledge," in 1971. This one falls short in comparison because there seems to be so much less to say. That was a time of exploration of new territory; now people are used to going in circles.
The main problem with this film is that, despite the interweaving stories of hookups and breakups, no one seems to be changed by experience. Not only do they learn nothing, they don’t seem to be reasonably scarred. In "Closer" the four lovers go through wrenching experiences and then start over with a new, or the same, lover as if the game had been re-set to "Start." Compare that with the accurate way the brutalizing effects of loving and losing were depicted in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
So does it mean "Closer" as in intimacy, or "Closer" as in endings? I think you’ll understand these characters best if you just drop the "C" entirely.