Closer is the movie that Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance wanted to be: it’s a story about the pain humans cause one another. It succeeds where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance failed, because the characters are people and not caricatures and because Mike Nichols recognizes that pain arises from the cruelties we deal one another. It’s very close to being a great movie.
The only flaw in the ointment is Julia Roberts, but let’s leave that for a moment. It’s the best Jude Law performance of the year, edging out his executive in I ♥ Huckabees. He’s still got that surface gloss which detracts a little from his performance, but like his executive, this is a role that fits that gloss. And his body language is a thing of beauty. Particularly during his scenes with Natalie Portman: the pair of them express themselves in exactly the way lovers interact. Not when they’re first meeting — that’s not so hard — but when they’re parting badly, and one of them wants to taste the other’s mouth, and there’s the moment of wanting to give in, to comfort, but no, you can’t —
They had that down perfectly. Body language was the key to both of their performances. If you see it, or see it again, watch how Natalie Portman moves. When she’s unhappy or uncomfortable she’s a feral jittery thing who can’t keep still. She moves, and tics, and tilts her head, and never comes to rest. When she’s on her home ground, she’s a feral calm thing who moves, well, like a woman who knows she has the edge. It’s a great transformation. It’s definitely nomination-worthy.
Apparently the studio is pushing Julia Roberts for the Best Actress nomination, while Natalie Portman is relegated to Best Supporting Actress, but that’s wrong. If I had to pick, and I’d hate to do it, I’d say Natalie Portman has the marginally more important role. Clive Owen is getting pushes for Best Supporting Actor and Jude Law for Best Actor, but that split makes more sense. And Jude Law was a touch better than Clive Owen, although there was nothing wrong with Clive Owen’s performance. He’s not as good an actor, but does he bring the heat? Yes, he brings the angry crude cunning heat. The scene in which he and Julia Roberts break up is so furious that the theater exhaled when it ended.
That was not, I think, a spoiler. Then again, it is, but you would be poorly served if you entered into an act of commerce involving Closer without the awareness that this is a movie about people who hurt other people by granting and withdrawing and withholding their love. You want to brace for it.
And Julia Roberts? She’s a cipher. She is the actress who is boldly playing an older woman, but not really. No crows-feet. The role was originally going to Cate Blanchett, which would have worked out better. There’s nothing horrendous about Julia Roberts, but she’s such a passive actress. Even when she’s playing heated, it’s hard to believe her. The other characters have emotions, but she drifts. This is perhaps in some part the character. It still weakens the film to a degree.
At one level, the movie is about two men fighting; they use their relationships with two women as the battleground. This is exactly as un-feminist as it sounds. Natalie Portman undermines that, though. It’s not that she’s admirable, it’s that she understands the battleground as well as the men. So do they use her as a place to fight? Yes. But she is using them in other, more subtle ways. She’s a person, not an object. I’m not sure I can say the same about Julia Roberts, whose Anna is so passive that at times it seems like she just follows the last man who seduces her, in whatever sense of “seduces” one likes.
Perhaps, again, this was the point of the character. But if so, all I can say is that Julia Roberts was born to play that role.
In the end, mind you, it doesn’t matter because everyone else brings enough anger and passion and desire to the screen to more than make up for any lack on her part. It’s a fine movie which will be on my top ten list in a month or two. I should also caveat that my distaste for Julia Roberts may be irrational; if you would agree with that statement, feel free to disregard the last three paragraphs. A lot of critics really liked her performance.
Instead, consider the elegant cool greys and blues of the film, and don’t be put off by the contrived slow-motion opening sequence which seems so much like just another bad romance opening. The bookend closing sequence parodies it ruthlessly, up to and including the mawkish song. It is a meticulous movie, and I liked it very much.