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Many Will Insist "Closer" Is Art, But It Isn't

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • Updated Jul 28, 2007
Many Will Insist "Closer" Is Art, But It Isn't

Release Date:  December 3, 2004
Rating:  R (for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language)
Genre:  Drama/Romance
Run Time: 1 hr. 40 min.
Director:  Mike Nichols
Actors: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen, Michael Haley

EDITORIAL NOTE:  The following review contains subject matter that may be inappropriate for children and young teens.  Parental supervision is advised.

What do you get when a stripper meets a desperate man who falls in love with a depressive, who in turn marries a sex addict who’s enthralled by prostitutes and – you guessed it – strippers?  Some might say a ménage à quatre, and certainly, it is that.  But all that can really be said of Mike Nichol’s latest endeavor is that it’s one sordid, nihilistic mess.

When Alice (Natalie Portman) and Dan (Jude Law) walk toward one another on a busy London street, they are instantly attracted.  Then Alice is hit by a cab and Dan escorts her to the hospital, which forges a relationship between them, despite the fact that Dan has a girlfriend.  Alice survives with only a few bumps then confesses that she’s a stripper from New York who has come to London on an “expedition.”

Flash forward a few years, and Dan is at Anna’s (Julia Roberts) photographic studio.  She is shooting him for the jacket cover of his new book, a pseudo-biographical novel about Alice’s life.  Dan flirts with Anna and kisses her, then admits that he is married to Alice.  Soon after, Alice arrives and perceives the chemistry between the two.  She insists on having her photo taken, then confronts Anna.

Flash forward a few more months, when Dan is pretending to be Anna, during an Internet instant-message exchange with Larry (Clive Owen), a sex-addicted dermatologist who appears to regularly engage in this activity.  After a particularly vile exchange of sex talk between the two, Dan offers (as Anna) to meet Larry at the aquarium.  Instead, Larry happens upon the real Anna.  Although it quickly becomes clear that they are victims of Dan’s practical joke, they are attracted and spend the afternoon together.

Flash forward three more months, to Anna’s exhibition of photos (which includes one of Alice, crying, when she confronted Anna).  During the cocktail party, Dan discovers that Larry and Anna are dating, which doesn’t stop him from pursuing Anna again.  Meanwhile, Larry flirts openly with Alice.  Flash forward one more year.  Larry is confessing to Anna, after a business trip, that he has slept with a prostitute.  Anna admits that she’s been having an affair with Dan for the past year, while across town, Dan is admitting the same to Alice.  A few months later, Larry runs into Alice in a strip club, where she has returned to work, and the two cavort on in an unabashedly sexual manner.

Had enough?  It gets worse, and it was all I could do to remain in the theatre watching it.  Not only was I thoroughly disgusted, but I was also mortified to think that someone might see me and assume I was enjoying this perversion, rather than reviewing it as part of my job.  The only good thing about that is that I did see it, so you don’t have to.  But do not be surprised if this film gets raves.  After all, so did Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic, even sadomasochistic photos, which earned him the moniker of “art icon” during the '70s and '80s.

“Closer” has stars galore, who all do a very good job with their roles.  Roberts is solid and unusually understated; Portman is all grown up (boy, just watch her spread those legs); Law is a pitiful conundrum; and Owen stands out as a truly evil person.  The highly successful theatre production by Patrick Marber, who also wrote the screenplay, played to sold-out London audiences then opened in New York amid great fanfare.  But set aside the ravings of the liberal literati, and what’s left?  A close-up into the bedrooms of four very sick individuals, with a harrowing message of hopelessness.

Ponderous with dialogue, as plays tend to be, the script propels itself forward by focusing on one sexual dalliance then another.  Characters lash out at each other and speak in the most graphic of terms imaginable.  It is witty?  At times.  “It’s not safe out there,” Dan says to Alice, as she walks out on him after his confession. “And it’s safe in here?”  Yet during other moments, the film is heavy with its own sense of self-importance.  “You be my whore and I will repay you with your liberty,” Larry begs of Anna, who succumbs to his request.  

The film insists that we are predominantly sexual beings who will always crave that which we cannot have.  “Lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking off her clothes,” Alice says. “But it’s so much more fun if you do.”  The result is that, because we are just one step above animals on the evolutionary chain (“We were fish, long ago, before we were apes”), we will ultimately give in to those cravings and create chaos around us.  Our only hope lies in finding someone with whom we are the most compatible, who will forgive our ongoing sexual transgressions.

As the film ends, the viewer is left with the overwhelming sense that life is meaningless.  “Everything is a version of something else,” says one character.  Nothing is real, for humans are incapable of truth and goodness.  “Try lying for a change – it’s the currency of the world,” says Dan.  Later, Larry echoes this sentiment when he calls the heart a “fist wrapped in blood.”  “Congratulations,” Dan says to Anna.  “You’re a double divorcee. How do you feel?”  She answers, “Tired.”

Is this another “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe” for Nichols, millennium style?  With its quadrangle of overt sexuality and foul language, this film certainly pushes the envelope, as he is wont to do.  In fact, it would appear that a new line has again been crossed, much in the same way that Nichols did with not only “Virginia Wolfe,” but also “Silkwood,” “Carnal Knowledge” and “The Graduate.”  In a recent interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the director insisted that his film contains “just three seconds of nudity – maybe two.”  I can only wonder if he is referring to the shot of Portman’s anus, the nude strippers or the repeated shot of a naked woman in a sex ad placed on a computer we see again and again.  Seems like fuzzy math to me.

Even if the overt nudity is limited – and compared to other films, it is, but that’s not saying much – the sex talk isn’t.  And it is this which makes the film pornographic.  Rather than the usual visual pornography of celluloid copulation, we are subjected to an onslaught of verbal and written pornography throughout the film.  Art?  Many will insist it is, but I beg to differ.
AUDIENCE:  Adults only – and only if you must.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Heavy.  Characters smoke and drink throughout film; several scenes in nightclubs and strip clubs with people drinking and smoking.
  • Language/Profanity:  Extreme.  More than 50 profanities and obscenities including at least three dozen f-words.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Extreme.  Highly graphic, pornographic dialogue about sex between characters takes place throughout film. Multiple instances of upper female nudity and lower female rear nudity in several scenes, particularly two which take place in a strip club and one in a private room, where female stripper spreads legs and bends over, giving audience a very graphic view.  Character begins to masturbate.  References to homosexuality. Multiple instances of adultery, fornication and a very graphic, pornographic internet exchange between two characters. 
  • Violence:   Average.  Woman is hit by car (offscreen) and left with bloody face and knee; woman fears man will hit her but he does not; man raises his hand to hit another woman, she taunts him, then he slaps her.