Like Robert Altman, Mike Nichols is great with actors and has an incredible knack for picking great material, but while both men are similarly obsessed with scrutinizing modern mating rituals, Nichols can’t hold a candle to what Altman does with his lens. Where Nichols mostly uses his camera to point and shoot, Altman uses his in the same way a great jazzman uses his instrument: as an improvisational tool to capture and measure delicate shifts in human behavior. In this way, Altman is exciting where Nichols is more or less predictable. Tony Kushner understood this, which is why Altman was his first choice to direct Angels in America. At once breathlessly dramatic and suffocatingly intellectual, Angels in America was a very necessary act of political radicalism for its time. Brilliantly acted, Nichols’s adaptation for HBO faithfully honors Kushner’s anger but exaggerates his impersonality.
Similarly bourgeois is Nichols’s adaptation of Patrick Marber’s Closer, the story of four strangers who meet, fuck, love, and betray each other over the course of several serendipitous years. Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer, falls for Dan (Jude Law), an author, during a photo shoot. One is trying to make sense of the world, the other is trying to capture it—not surprisingly, it’s love at first sight. Problem is that Dan is going out with Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper, and Anna will soon meet and marry Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. Boasting a time-shifting narrative, symmetrical compositions, characters who wear their occupations like placards, and tasteful smut, Closer is the kind of programmatic middlebrow entertainment with lots to sell except none of it is very valuable.
Like Marber’s Dealer’s Choice, there’s a queer element to Closer (in the film’s funniest scene, Dan talks to Larry as a woman inside a chat room and ends up accidentally setting up the dermatologist with Anna), but it’s buried so deep that some might not even notice it, not unlike Anna’s lonely and confused desire to shoot the world and Larry’s rant about a restaurant’s interior design, which would have us believe that the play is not just some men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus rant, but a study of alienation in the modern world. But however “contemporary” Closer may look and feel, there’s nothing that happens to its characters that registers beyond its self-obsessed world-of-four. Compare the film to something like the infinitely hotter In the Mood For Love, where the impossible love of two people mirrors the impossible social upheavals of a nation, and Closer‘s nonchalance becomes more obvious.
Like Carnal Knowledge (which some consider Nichols’s best film, written—interestingly enough—by Jules Feiffer, who also wrote Popeye, which some consider Altman’s worst film), Closer is self-consciously hip, and like the more organic We Don’t Live Here Anymore earlier this year, both play and film could just as easily have been called The Rules of the Game, because Marber and Nichols (like Larry Goss) generate considerable excitement from watching people betray each other. As audiences, we’re meant to relate to the way Anna, Dan, Alice, and Larry lie to and hurt each other throughout the film, except none of them really talk like us and Nichols makes the mistake of treating pain with a precious gauze.
At one point during Closer, Larry asks Dan if he’s ever seen a human heart. “It’s shaped like a fist wrapped in blood,” says Larry. It’s a beautiful line, for sure, but it’s fit for Wordsworth, not a gorilla-like dermatologist with a supposed nine-inch cock. (Imagine how many more people would get regular check-ups if all doctors were prone to such impromptu poeticisms.) In this way, Closer‘s characters are artificial. (A colleague rightfully likened the film to a feature-length version of the humorous film-within-a-film from Stephen Soderbergh’s awful Full Frontal.) Now, to be completely fair, Law and Roberts are both excellent in spite of what comes out of their mouths—they’re raw and earthy in the same way that Owen and Portman are synthetic.
With its pretty close-ups of pretty actors and pretty slow-motion shots set to pretty songs (I wonder if Damien Rice’s O will take off in the same way Play did after Moby sold his indie soul to the devil), Closer is scarcely complex—it’s just, well, precious. Portman, who sounds like Drew Barrymore doing Pinter, is Nichols’s idea of a Barbie doll in London. In a way, the film’s final scenes—spoiler alert—are meant to empower Alice, but the fact that the revelation of the girl’s real name contradicts one of Larry’s vicious tirades doesn’t exactly make her complicated, unless of course you think strippers who use their real names or the girls in cheesy ‘80s Jordache commercials are, you know, deep.