I s there a movie director alive today with a more eclectic oeuvre than Mike Nichols? Here’s a partial list of the films he’s made over the last 38 or so years (not in chronological order because my mind doesn’t work that way and I can’t be overly dependent on IMDb.com, or I’ll know that working retail has irreparably atrophied my brain):
- Carnal Knowledge
- Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
- The Birdcage
- Primary Colors
- What Planet Are You From? (which is what they should have asked the studio exec who greenlit this one. Heck. They could ask them today.)
- Working Girl
- Postcards from the Edge
And he’s fared well with HBO over the last few years, making both “Wit” and “Angels in America” with (my beloved) Emma Thompson (I think she’s terrific).
So now here is Closer, which was originally a play in London by one Patrick Marber. I saw his play Dealer’s Choice when I was living in London from 1994 to 1995. It was a great, laddish thing about gamblers: funny, raucous, bawdy, and very suspenseful. It was clever and unlike anything I’d seen in the theatre – a bunch of blokes sitting around a card table and dissecting life. It was not stilted and preachy, as single set plays often are (like David Hare’s Racing Demon, which I saw in the round at Lincoln Center in college – didactic and depressing).
I was not familiar with Closer, and I now know why: it’s not my cup of tea. I think I get what it was trying to do, and I don’t like how it did it.
The action takes place current day (or a few years ago) London: Jude Law’s Daniel meets Natalie Portman’s Alice on the street: they are gazing at each other as the approach from opposite directions, silently flirting. Then Alice is hit by a cab. Daniel takes her to the emergency room and is taken with this saucy, bohemian waif. They become lovers.
Anna, played by Julia Roberts, and Larry, played by Clive Owen, also meet cute, though through misunderstanding and cybersex (I won’t spoil one of the movie’s few laughs with an elaboration). After an awkward introduction at the aquarium, they become lovers.
Truly, the plot is irrelevant here, and it’s somewhat perfunctory, so I won’t divulge much. More important is what this film says about relationships and the people who choose to partake of them. Basically, monogamy is a joke, a trick we play on ourselves and others because we’re masochistic and untrusting as humans.
Basically, we have a Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice scenario that does not lead to enlightenment and a stronger valuing of one’s primary partner. Mere adultery will not do, and all manner of unhealthy fixations begin. This is a film about sex that shows no sex, which is compelling, and it also is about intimacy, yet was shot in such a sterile manner that it’s impossible to do anything with these characters except observe them. I felt nothing for any of them, except admiration for their stamina in a two-plus hour series of dialogues. Rarely, if ever, are there more than two people in a scene. It’s one-on-one all the time.
A few observations about the cast: only Clive Owen, one of the great smolderers, seems to inhabit his role; you feel his anger and palpable sadness and desire for revenge. Jude Law has a grand time making a rare departure from his golden boy roles (only Cold Mountain before this has afforded him that challenge); his dirty, disheveled hair and dorky outfits do more than he does. Natalie Portman tries to play mature but seems to be fighting a constant urge to say, “like,” “awesome,” and “totally.”
And then there’s Mrs. Moder (Julia Roberts). Julia Roberts won a well-earned Academy Award for the lead role in Erin Brockovitch (more evidence of my theory that Steven Soderbergh is the only director capable of eliciting good performances from inconsistent actresses: Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, Laura San Giacomo and Andie McDowell in sex, lies, and videotape, Catherine Zeta-Jones in Traffic). And I don’t think she’s able to do much else other than play the winning ingenue. Julia Roberts is what I like to call an “institution actor:” someone who stands for an archetype and doesn’t give performances per se. My brother and I have generated a few of these: Tom Hanks is the charming everyman; Meg Ryan is the hapless career gal; Robin Williams is the winsome man-child; Michael Douglas is the not-quite-reformed roué. Julia Roberts may be one of our finest romantic comedy actresses. And she does not seem to be capable of stretching, or willing to stretch, beyond this (perhaps Mr. Soderbergh will redeem himself with a good role for her after directing her look to like a chump in Ocean’s Twelve).
Mike Nichols has coaxed from the script some ideas that are very relevant for people in new relationships as well as for those in long-term relationships. Without ever hinting at the concepts of right, wrong, and guilt, he asks, is there nobility in telling one’s partner the truth? Are we better off knowing even if we’re miserable as a result? I mentioned masochism above and apparently, we do it to ourselves when we demand of our partner, “Do you fancy her/him?” “How is she/he different than me?” “Give me details.” Once seeds of doubt are planted, they’re impossible to dig up.
And for all those observations/introspections, he’s helmed a mean, nasty, misogynistic film that felt more like Neil LaBute’s In The Company Of Men than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to which many critics have compared this. It’s fine to leave guilt out of it, and Nichols and his screenwriter(s) never refer to responsibility. And that is where he loses me. Additionally, in this world, women are sex objects and emotionally objectified, they are not creatures to whom one would want to get closer, except in a physical sense. Tragically, Julia Roberts plays into that convention far too well.
I noticed that a couple in the theatre had brought their children to the showing. It’s hard to imagine which served as a stronger method of birth control: the presence of a crying baby or this movie. I’ll leave it for history and the moviegoing public to decide if we can derive much value from an intimate subject that is so sterilely filmed. At least this one was better than “The Birdcage.”