Thursday, April 01, 2010

Underrated Movie #56: Closer

Title: Closer
Year: 2004
Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Patrick Marber, based on his play
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts

The Story: Two couples in contemporary London engage in escalating games of emotional brutality, crossing and double-crossing each other over the course of several years.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was one of those movies that got a huge build-up as an Oscar contender, then got quickly decimated by negative reviews. It’s not perfect, but it’s very powerful and well-worth seeing. Unfortunately, there’s no wiggle room these days: either you blow everybody away or you sink like a stone.

Why It’s (Almost) Great:

  1. I would daresay that this film is the career-best performance for all four of its leads. Of course, that’s not saying much, since Law, Portman and Owen have a serious addiction to underwhelming scripts, and Roberts, is, you know, Roberts. Clearly all four handed themselves and their personas over to Nichols with total abandon, and he relishes the chance to strip these big stars of their defenses, their vanities and even, in the best possible way, their dignity. Roberts famously insisted that her role in Stepmom be made nicer because “people expect Julia Roberts to act a certain way.” But here, in Nichols’s hands, she’s finally willing to be an actor, not a star.
  2. Of the four, the youngest steals the show. I had guessed that Portman was destined to be a mega-star with her great pre-teen performance in Beautiful Girls, but then winced as she struggled to find roles that suited her over the years. Owen and Law are both known for their intense stares, but they more than meet their match in Portman, who can drown them both in her bottomless glares of judgment.
  3. I think this movie garnered so much negativity because of its best quality: It’s embarrassing. It’s so intense it makes you squirm. I’m sure this was true onstage, but it’s magnified ten times on screen, with tight close-ups on famous faces. There’s a jaw-dropping cross-cut scene where Owen unwittingly engages in cyber-sex with Law that manages to be just as shocking today as Nichols’s ’60 films were then.
  4. This movie completes a thematic trilogy with two much-earlier Nichols films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Carnal Knowledge. All three are sharp, spare, simple movies about a pair of couples that tear each other to shreds.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This was part of brief Nichols renaissance along with his brilliant HBO miniseries adapation of another contemporary stage classic, Angels in America, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD only.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: You Have To Be Worthy Or It Will Never Happen!


lthadeo said...

In Noting Hill, there's a scene where Julie Roberts (playing Fake-Julia) watches an embarrassingly serious dramatic performance in a Fake-Julia movie. Its black and white and all the lines come out stilted before the music sweeps in for a bad romance movie kiss. I would rather watch that fake movie 1,000 times than suffer through the pretentious aspirations of this movie again.

I agree Natalie was pretty good and I thought Clive Owen was great. But that made it even worse when they took the very stage-y language of the script and sold it in the same scene where Julia or Jude sounds like they're impersonating John Lovitz's Master Thespian.

Boo this movie.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous comment. I usually agree with your judgments, so I watched this movie because you recommended it, Matt, and I can't see what you see in it. Aside from Portman's remarkable performance, there's not much to it and what's there is bad, like an overly symmetrical mid-period Woody Allen movie or like early Atom Egoyan with too much explaining and no mystery whatsoever. The heart may want what it wants, but no one's choice--except the clumsily manipulative writer's--makes any sense. The direction is okay, but putting this writing on par with Edward Albee's masterpiece is unfair to both.

christofeles said...

The reception of opening films is sadly unreliable. Things need to be hyped to draw an audience, but there's always a back-lash against the buzz. I'm eternally playing catch-up with films, so I don't tend to seek out the new things, unless it's something by von Trier.

Closer is a rock-solid film with engaging performances and easily takes a position among Nichol's best films. There's some great nastiness in it, and the scene where Owen's character is being solicited for sex on-line defines our era.