All glitz and no guts
Many years ago — many, many years ago, when Presidents wore cardigans and the cuffs on a girl’s jeans might be wider than her waist — my girlfriend and I were taking a shortcut through Bloomingdales when we went past an elaborate dining room set that, a sign informed us, was a duplicate of the table, chairs, settings in the Manhattan apartment of Mr. Mike Nichols. I looked at the massive table and the ostentatious, overstuffed, avant garde chairs and said, “If we ever get any money, let’s spend it on good times rather than furniture.”1
Fast-forward to 2004, and Mike has changed frighteningly little. He’s still overpriced and overstuffed, ponderously artsy, all glitz and no guts. His latest statement on la comédie humaine is the singularly sour Closer, a mordant film mordantly based on Patrick Marber’s presumably mordant play of the same name. Like not a few champion tail-chasers, Nichols is both furiously aroused and furiously disgusted by the plumbings of desire, a compulsion he shares with the two male leads, Dan (Jude Law) and Larry (Clive Owen).2
Closer begins on a parodistic note — Alice (Natalie Portman) is a Yank abroad who’s come to strip for England and gets whacked by a London taxi because she looked the wrong way while crossing the street. Dan, a lowly assistant obituary writer, comes to her rescue, and we seem to be off on one of those cute transatlantic comedies like A Fish Called Wanda, where a good-natured, sexually unabashed American chick teaches a stuffy but sweet Englishman how to live.
But in the next scene, all’s changed. Dan isn’t a lost lamb anymore, a poor sub of a sub sub; he’s a feral fox on the prowl, a hot young novelist with a scandalous book in the offing. In his smooth, black-on-black ensemble, he looks about as helpless as a switchblade, and he’s being photographed by Anna (JuliaRoberts), another of his kind. They’re both artists/thieves — Dan steals stories (his book is based on Alice’s life), while Anna steals faces. All the dialogue here is done in malicious, manipulative shorthand — each is too greedy for control to allow the other more than eight words before launching a comeback — which sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Naturally, two such avid sinners can’t resist doing more with their mouths than talk, though each is “taken.” Unfortunately, Alice is right outside, and we soon learn that she’s heard enough to know that her dear boy is sprouting devil’s horns. Such honest grief can’t go unexploited — not in this picture, at least — and Anna snaps a winner of a candid.3
Another jump and we’re in the middle of a smutty online chat between Dan, pretending to be a chick,4 and a frolicsome dermatologist whom we’ll soon come to know as Larry. The two fling wicked cumbacks at one another in true Penthouse Forum style, which Larry is somehow dumb enough to take seriously. Dan, in a devilish in-joke, invites Larry to “the Aquarium” for a date with “Anna.” “The Aquarium” is the title of Dan’s novel, suggested to him by Anna, commemorating some steamy encounter that he enjoyed there with Alice. By (very) great coincidence, Anna happens to be there when Larry shows up. By another great coincidence, Larry “recognizes” her, and, by yet a third, it appears that she enjoys being accosted by smutty-mouthed strangers.5
Another jump and we’re at Anna’s first show, and for the only time in the picture all four principals will be in one room together. The setting is nothing but sleek — the bright lights, big city jungle where art, ambition, and avarice all bleed together — the world Mike Nichols has called home for a good forty years. The two pairs shuffle and reshuffle, share secrets and tell lies in compulsive bouts of one-upmanship. Only Alice, our adorable naïf stripper, remains uncorrupted. In the longest speech of the film, she trashes the “pretentious arseholes” who use art to camouflage a privileged lifestyle that denies the reality of human suffering. “The pictures are beautiful, but the faces are sad,” she says. But “they” don’t care. All “they” want is old money, white tie bling — champagne, caviar, and chauffeured limousines.6
With all their pieces in place, Nichols and Marber seem to set for a modern-day cross between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Heart of Darkness, but in fact we don’t get much more than a lot of “Did you suck his cock?” “Did he come in your mouth?” “What did it taste like?” dialogue,7 which quickly becomes an end in itself. The plot dwindles to a power struggle between Dan and Larry, which Larry, as a seriously ass-kicking, nut-cutting dermatologist, easily wins,8 in part because Dan mysteriously shrivels from bad boy back to wimp (his novel is a dud rather than a winner9 and he goes back to being an obituary writer10) and in part because Larry is conveniently able to talk both women into going to bed with him. Dan, being a man, can’t resist pumping them for all the sticky details, working himself into hysterics and alienating both chicks.11
The film ends with a ponderously “heavy” twist — Dan discovers that even though he lived with Alice for three years, he didn’t even know her real name! Heavy! Heavy! True, it’s a complete contradiction of all that we’ve been told about Alice’s character — unlike the others, she’s completely open and honest — but it does finish the picture, which is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
And Another Thing
I wouldn’t be quite so hard on Mike if he hadn’t further burdened this film with perhaps the worst film score I’ve ever heard. I could forgive, sort of, the coy sampling of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti,12 but the opening and closing “ballad,” consisting almost entirely of the line “Can’t get my mind off of you,”13 repeated over and over again, each rendition more precious and “exquisite” than the last, starts at unendurable and goes downhill fast.14 I don’t mind suffering for art, as long as it doesn’t hurt too much, but suffering for affectation is too damn much to ask.
- Twenty-five years later, I am sans both girlfriend and cash, but — and I would like to think that this is the most important thing — my dining room still looks nothing like Mike Nichols’. [↩]
- Since Marber thought the whole thing up, and wrote the screenplay, one can assume he’s in on it too. [↩]
- Anna’s photos are a dead ringer for the way Nichols photographs Closer — enormous, unglamorous close-ups of glamorous people. Roberts’ weathered beauty is certainly striking — she isn’t a movie star by accident — but there’s no context to give it meaning. Is she a suffering goddess, a compromised one, or corrupted in herself? Her character, which becomes increasingly less defined as the film progresses, gives us no clue. She’s just a lovely, middle-aged woman, about whom we know nothing. [↩]
- We know that Dan has become a complete hound because we see him chain-smoking through the proceedings. In the first scene, Alice was ballsy because she smoked while Dan was a wimp because he was afraid to. At the end of the film we’re asked to admire Alice because she the “strength of character” to quit while Dan doesn’t. “Strength of character”? Is that what this film is about? [↩]
- Anna eventually figures out what really happened and explains it to Larry, who is disbelieving. “No man could have written that!” he exclaims earnestly, as if anyone could believe that women typically want to be humped by five men at once. “He must be some writer,” he says grudgingly, once Anna has straightened him out. Yeah, it takes real talent to write shit like that. Take a bow, Mr. Marber! [↩]
- “They,” Mr. Nichols? “They,” Mr. Marber? How about “we”? [↩]
- According to online gossip, Natalie gave Julia a “Cunt” necklace to commemorate all the trash-talking. Julia later responded with a “Li’l Cunt” keepsake for Natalie. [↩]
- Their showdown scene has more than a touch of Dad telling Junior what’s going to happen to him if he doesn’t keep it in his pants. Larry is portrayed here as a busy executive in serious Bond Street pinstripes, while Dan, after getting caught in a cloudburst, looks like a drowned cat. [↩]
- Anna’s character also dissolves into almost nothing. After her show, she never takes a photograph again, and never talks about her career, which, when we first met her, seemed to define her. [↩]
- When he tells Larry that he’s now head obituary writer because his boss died, it’s supposed to be funny. Why do live theater audiences still laugh at lines like this? Are they afraid to go outside? I guess I just answered my own fucking question. [↩]
- And what, one has to ask, is the big deal with all the bodily fluids? If you stop to think about it, semen is pretty innocuous stuff as fluids go, bland indeed compared to vinegar or grain alcohol, not to mention ammonia or gasoline. Yes, it does come out of a man’s penis, but a penis, after all, is God’s handiwork — not one of his better pieces, perhaps, but still from the Master’s workshop. Maybe we can’t get past the fact that mom has mucus-lined orifices, that she secretes saliva, and that she used to suck off dad. But at least we can have a sense of humor about it, can’t we? [↩]
- In fairness to Nichols (and I am trying to be fair), even Mozart (and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) don’t quite square the circle and make a harmless joke out of infidelity. Hey, it’s not always a laughing matter. [↩]
- If this is not an exact quote, I’m glad. [↩]
- Both sequences feature Portman walking in slow-motion, a device that Nichols seems to confuse with art. You have to feel sorry for Renoir and those other guys, wasting all that time with scripts and actors. Just set the dial, dude! It’s a no-brainer! [↩]