Mike Nichols must have seemed the perfect choice to direct the film version of Patrick Marber’s play, a funny and sharp exploration of modern relationships. But despite the pedigree behind the camera and a terrific cast, the end result is cold and curiously lifeless.
The story involves two couples whose relationships intersect over a four-year period in London. When Alice (Natalie Portman), an American stripper, meets a journalist called Dan (Jude Law) they strike up a relationship. A few years on Dan meets a photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts), and decides to flirt with her. She initially rejects his advances and instead ends up going out with a dermatologist called Larry (Clive Owen). Undeterred, Dan meets up with Anna a year later at an exhibition of her work and they begin cheating on their respective lovers.
It is probably no accident that Mike Nichols was attracted to this material. Some of his best work (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge) has explored the darker areas of human relationships and Closer is no different. Nearly all the main characters engage in petty and vindictive behaviour, with scant regard to their partner’s feelings. They regularly let rip with barbed judgments (“you’re a coward”, “You f****d up slag” etc.) and betrayal is almost mandatory.
On stage this often made for some effective dark comedy but on film it doesn’t quite feel right. The dialogue sounds too stilted, too self-knowing and at times down right implausible. Lying is “the currency of the world” and the human heart is like a “fist wrapped in blood”. Shrewd observations they may be, but the characters that say them often come across as mere mouthpieces for Marber’s observations.
Despite these problems, Closer is by no means a failure. The acting is of a high standard and some of Marber’s best scenes still work. Portman in particular shines in a role that covers many emotional bases and it is refreshing to see Julia Roberts engage in a role far removed from her more mainstream offerings. Jude Law conveys the sneaky and shallow nature of his character effectively, even if this performance is not one of his best. Clive Owen more than holds his own with more established stars and of all the main cast he seems the one most at home with the material – not a great surprise given that he played Dan in the original stage production.
The biggest – and most surprising – aspect of Closer is that it doesn’t really ‘open up’ the stage play. Too much of the action is static and simply involves characters talking in rooms whilst the London setting is almost ignored, it could be New York or any number of other cities. This was almost certainly a stylistic choice but it doesn’t work. Given Nichols track record in stage to film adaptations – his version of Angels in America for HBO in 2002 was terrific – it is disappointing that Closer feels so flat. It could be that the play is not suited to medium of film, but given the talent involved you can’t help wondering what a more imaginative approach would have yielded.