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Love vs. lies

A review of Closer(R)

Natalie Portman as Alice in Closer
  • Natalie Portman as Alice in Closer

*Closer (R)
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Natalie Portman captures the glossy despair of Mike Nichol's film Closer when her character, admiring a teary-eyed close-up photo of herself, says "It's a lie." She's talking to Larry (Clive Owen) who is flirting with her at his girlfriend Anna's (Julia Roberts) photography exhibit. "It's a bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully," she continues. "Everybody loves a big fat lie."

The beautifully photographed but self-absorbed and cruel characters in Nichols' film never stop lying to each other. They thirst for love, but their preoccupation with sex and perceived betrayal leaves them hollow. And a starry cast of stunning but empty-eyed actors leads this stylish but emotionally challenging meditation on love in the 21st century.

The film takes place in contemporary London, where Dan (Jude Law) works as a struggling writer who writes obituaries to make ends meet. One day he's about to cross a street when he locks eyes with a radiant young woman with dyed neon-red hair (Portman). The young woman, holding Dan's gaze, doesn't look as she's crossing the street and a taxi slams into her. Dan takes her to the hospital, and then spends the day walking around London with her. Before parting, Dan asks her name. She says her name is Alice.

In the next scene, months have passed and Dan is seated in Anna's photography studio. As Anna snaps portraits for Dan's upcoming book, Dan eyes her and within minutes they're making out. When Alice, now Dan's girlfriend, appears, Dan whispers to Anna to meet him at an aquarium the next day. That night Dan visits a sex-chat Web site and pretends to be a female nymphomaniac. He slyly invites his cyber-male companion, a brutish but refined dermatologist named Larry, to meet him at the aquarium the next day.

But the joke backfires when Larry meets Anna. The two hit it off and begin going out. The four characters from then on begin a series of love triangles with Dan and Larry fighting over Anna and, alternately, Alice (Warning: This is probably not a good double-date movie, or even date movie).

Though Nichols never shows lovemaking scenes, all four find themselves obsessed with sex. The director underlines this by frequently inserting pornographic language in the dialogue. And this is where the acting falters the most, as when Larry, now married to Anna, forces her to graphically confess to whatever sexual positions she's taken with Dan.

After Anna dumps Larry for Dan and Dan dumps Alice, Larry finds Alice working in a strip club. As The Smiths blare away in the background, Alice shows Larry every inch of her curvaceous body while Larry stares in wild hollow-eyed lust. Larry's obsession for Alice is fueled by his desire to even the score in his sex-mad mind.

Nichols plays with time and emotion to a disturbing effect similar to Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai (Chingking Express, In the Mood for Love). The movie spans four years in disjointed fashion. One scene will abruptly transition into another scene months later. In the hands of a lesser director the effect could've been clunky and confusing. But Nichols succeeds in preserving the plot while detaching the viewer from the characters, allowing the viewer the emotional clarity to observe their words and actions.

This is important. As the four tear into each other, they admit to lies and cowardice. But they never admit selfishness, and never figure out that their obsessions are ultimately destructive and self-serving. Nichols' objective is to move the viewer to an understanding about love that can only be comprehended by viewing the neurosis that results from its absence.

Ultimately, Nichols gives the viewer a stylish close-up view of human folly. The characters want love and they want to be closer to their lovers. But love is trumped by obsession, and Nichols wants you to notice.

-- Dan Wilcock

Cinemark 16, Tinseltown

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