Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Mike Nichols

Screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on his play

Starring Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman

Rated R; 104 minutes

It’s tough to get a handle on the creative output of Mike Nichols, and it’s made no easier by his latest film, Closer. Film quality, entertainment value and subject matter range all over the map, with only a few unifying threads tying together a directing career that’s entering its fifth decade. Not that consistency is an unalloyed good; some directors do one type of film for so long that they trap themselves in a celluloid cage. They may become auteur icons but the price is boredom — their own and the audience’s.

Nichols has been most consistent in his inconsistency. He has directed films on a spectrum that includes farce, comedy of manners, satire, comedy-drama, socially conscious melodrama and serious drama. Original sources have ranged from major novels (Catch-22) to fluffy romans à clef (Heartburn, Postcards from the Edge, Primary Colors). He’s worked with playwrights as different as Jules Feiffer, Neil Simon and Tony Kushner (bet you never thought you’d see those names together in one sentence).

If there are unifying threads in this patchwork quilt of a career, it’s that Nichols is great with actors and has a keen eye for talent. Just one example: Heartburn (1986) features Kevin Spacey in a small but flashy part, a good decade before he bedazzled in The Usual Suspects. Also, in his best work, Nichols has made a virtue of adaptability, by carefully matching a film’s form to the needs of its story. Unfortunately he fails to do this in Closer, vitiating what was likely a gripping stage play by not rethinking it for maximum effectiveness on film.

Nichols seemed to leap into film work fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. He was propelled by the showbiz heat generated by being one of the hottest Broadway directors of the 1960s (among other work he staged three Neil Simon smashes: Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, and Plaza Suite). So far, he has one more best director Oscar than criminally unawarded Martin Scorsese (for 1967’s The Graduate) — which was only his second movie. His debut film was the 1966 adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which brought Academy Awards to its two female stars (Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis) as well as Oscars for art direction, cinematography and costume design.

No director — no human being — could be expected to maintain this combination of prestige, honors and sheer cinematic excitement for long, much less for a long career. And it’s not like Nichols dropped off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style, after The Graduate. On the comedic side of the ledger, he re-peaked two decades later with 1988’s Working Girl, pulling one of Melanie Griffith’s best performances out of her and spicing her character’s Cinderella story with just enough realism to suspend disbelief.

A bit further down the enjoyability scale are The Birdcage (1996; cute but can’t hold a candle to the French original); Postcards from the Edge (1990; sludgily paced but studded with fun performances); and Heartburn (nowhere near as funny as the book and somewhat miscast, with shiksa Meryl Streep and goyim Jack Nicholson as a kvetch and a Jewish prince, respectively). There’s also the dreadful The Fortune (1975) and What Planet Are You From? (2000); the few seconds I’ve seen of both films make me leap for the remote.

On the serious side, there’s been the silly (1973’s The Day of the Dolphin: “Fa love Pa!”); the overrated (1971’s Carnal Knowledge, a load of misogynistic crap only slightly redeemed by Nicholson’s performing gusto); and the socially relevant (1983’s Silkwood, memorable now for giving Cher one of her first serious acting roles, as Karen Silkwood’s lesbian housemate). I’ve never seen Catch-22 (1970) or Primary Colors (1998) all the way through and I barely remember 1994’s Wolf (does anyone?).

Nichols re-re-peaked not on film but on TV, with 2003’s “Angels in America.” Its success, artistically and awards-wise, presents an interesting contrast with Closer, which is a slightly interesting failure with characteristically good performances.

Like “Angels,” Closer was adapted from the stage by its playwright, Patrick Marber. The difference is that “Angels,” an extremely theater-specific work, was rethought by Nichols and playwright Tony Kushner for the intimacy and pace of the TV screen. Closer sounds like it could be a compelling play but the film is visually inert, with its faults magnified rather than minimized on screen.

Closer explores love, lust, and (in)fidelity through four characters: obituary writer/unsuccessful novelist Dan (Jude Law); waifish stripper Alice (Natalie Portman); photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) and dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen). Dan meets cute with Alice and begins dating her, but falls for and stalks Anna, successfully bedding her even as she dates and marries Larry. To get back at Dan and Anna, Larry visits Alice at the strip club where she works. And on and on goes la ronde. Suffice it to say that the only sexual couplings that don’t occur are of the same-sex variety (mmm, Jude Law and Clive Owen…where was I?).

None of the characters are particularly noble; each gets to practice his or her own brand of cruelty at one point or another. Please note that their lack of likeability is emphatically not the problem with Closer: I was confused by people who criticized Sideways because the two male characters were jerks. Well yeah, that’s kind of the point; it’s rather like criticizing Hamlet because the title character is wishy-washy and he’s surrounded by lying courtiers, a suicidal girlfriend, an incestuous mother and a murderous stepfather. I mean really, who can an audience identify with? This sitcom will never fly.

Most of Closer’s scenes are two-person conversations: Dan, Anna and Alice are together for one brief scene, but there’s never a time when all four have words with each other. This type of four-hander can be really effective on stage, where rapid-fire dialogue drops secrets like hand grenades. And in the theater, each audience member can choose who to watch as power shifts fluidly from one character to the other.

For the film, Nichols mostly eschews the two-shots that could maintain this intensity, cutting from one character to another to give the illusion of movement and activity. He chooses who we see at any given point in an argument, but with harsh emotional scenes it’s often more interesting to see a silent reaction than the face of the person speaking.

This is, of course, a problem that movies have struggled with almost since they began: how to make stage properties “cinematic.” And there’s really no formula. Some plays make lousy movies no matter how much they are “opened up” for the screen; others work despite being locked in a single setting (Sidney Lumet’s 1962 Long Day’s Journey Into Night, for example). It’s also difficult to reproduce the theater experience in a film: Hitchcock tied his own hands with Rope, creating the illusion of a story taking place in one set, in real time, with almost no cutting — just like a play. He got an interesting experiment but a less-than-compelling movie.

Closer is a difficult case: it’s a play propelled by talk and talking, not by the sex that is its nominal subject. The most successful scenes are about talking. In one, Larry demands to know precisely what sexual exploits his straying wife Anna has been up to with Dan: where they did it, what positions, what acts, what results. It’s the telling, not the sex itself, that hurts her by hurting him.

The other successful scene has no spoken dialogue: it’s cybersex between Dan and Larry (Larry thinks Dan is of the female persuasion; on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog). Nichols cuts back and forth between the increasingly lewd words on screen and the bemused, sardonic but nevertheless excited faces of the two participants; for once in this film, the complexity of the relationships is expressed in visual terms. Clive Owen, who acted the part of Dan on stage, is particularly good in this scene, smirking at himself for getting turned on (but enjoying it nonetheless).

For most of the film, though, the verbal overwhelms the visual. There are visual motifs throughout (aquariums, black-and-white photographs, doorways) but they do little to illuminate the characters’ lives. For all the “revealing” talk we don’t learn a lot about these people, outside of how they act when seducing or breaking up with others. Closer is unsatisfying not because its people are unpleasant but because they are ordinary: petty, selfish and weak. Sideways makes the ordinary interesting by turning a close but sympathetic lens on its imperfect characters; Closer regards its people from a distance. I left Sideways saying “I know guys like that;” I left Closer saying “I’m glad I don’t know people like that.”

And what of Nichols? Humor has always been his saving grace (even “Angels in America,” which deals with AIDS, death and insanity, is also hilarious). Nichols began his career performing slyly funny improv with Elaine May, creating slow-motion repartee that revealed the absurdity of everyday speech. He needs a film that lets him show the comedy in drama, and vice versa.

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