If beauty were truth, and vice versa, there would be nothing else we'd need to know about the comely quartet of lovers who mix it up for a few hours in Closer, Mike Nichols' screen adaptation of a drama by the British playwright Patrick Marber. The four are portrayed by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen -- a little something for everyone who picks a partner (or a trick) based upon how preternaturally good he or she looks.
"Truth" is the theoretical at the core of Marber's play, but looking good doesn't get his characters off the hook. Closer is a solid piece of mature dramatic cinema, tightly directed by a master filmmaker who's at least as responsible for his actors' performances as they are. (Watch for the little ways the four effect change in one another, and don't take your eyes off their eyes.) Marber writes hard, smart dialogue that doesn't overwhelm you with epigrams. So when he comes up with one, it has a lot more impact.
"Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off," says one of the two women, "but it's more fun if you do." Great line -- and mighty meaty when you think about it. And my favorite, delivered by one of the men: "Have you ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood."
And yet, Closer is a letdown. After a while, as its characters sabotage their own and each others' relationships, their travails begin to take on a sort of blah-blah-blah sensation, like those games where you answer questions like, "If you saw your best friend's wife kissing another man ..." As the lights came up from a screening I attended, a middle-aged woman said to her companion, "That was strange." Apparently she doesn't watch much daytime television. Another patron said to his wife, "It was easy to play her part." I didn't catch which "her" he meant, but I sort of wanted to say to him, "OK, let's see you do it."
Closer opens with two of its personae literally meeting by accident: On a busy block in London, as they scope each other, in slow motion, from slightly afar, Alice (Portman) steps in front of a moving taxi, and Dan (Law) rushes to her rescue. She's not badly hurt, and as they wait at a hospital for some bandages, they exchange flirtations and information. She's a young American, a self-proclaimed "waif," who strips for a living. He writes obituaries for a newspaper after figuring out that he's not talented enough to be a real writer.
Cut to one year later. They're a couple now: She's a waitress in a café; and he, without having given up his day job, has written an erotically charged novel about her. At a shoot for his dust-jacket photo, he meets Anna (Roberts), an American photographer. They flirt and kiss, but then she remembers to ask if he's involved. He is -- and so she, just recently the victim of a cheating partner, is pretty pissed that he allowed her to kiss him.
Finally, there's Larry (Owen), a dermatologist, whom Dan uses to avenge Anna's rejection. In a sex-chat room, Dan poses as "Anna," talks dirty to Larry -- who's a champion at it himself -- and gets Larry to meet a clueless Anna at a place he knows she'll be. It's awkward at first -- Larry repeats some of their sex talk -- but after they figure things out, they kind of like each other.
And so on from there for the next three years. Marber would have no story to tell if Anna and Dan didn't eventually hook up, and if all four weren't so insistent upon being honest with each other. When adultery happens, the cheater eventually spills it, and so relationships fall apart, only to reconvene and fall apart again. All of this allows Marber to explore the limits of honesty between lovers: to ponder whether it's such a good thing in every case, and to show that the truth is as much a weapon as a shield.
Nichols made a thundering debut as a film director in 1966 with his adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That was a better play, but also a different one. Closer is so self-contained that the outside world and the characters' pasts hardly seem to exist, where in Virginia Woolf a slightly wider world loomed to interfere. The "twist" at the end of Closer, pulled off by the most unlikely of the characters, is more like just a bitter last laugh in a movie imbued with an almost ethereal nihilism. It's also one you'll see coming, not that it matters, and it's pretty far-fetched if you think about it.
The acting in Closer ranges from very good to outstanding, with Roberts eschewing her personality for something more sober, and Owen standing out as the cur you hate to love. I guess we're supposed to cogitate Closer and argue over which characters "do the right thing" and which ones are "jerks" or whatever. Frankly, I'm not so inclined this time. But you go right ahead.