Is there a director alive today with a more eclectic oeuvre than Mike Nichols. Here's a partial list of the films he's made over the last 38 or so years (not in chronological order because my mind doesn't work that way and I can't be overly dependent on IMDB.com or I'll know that working retail has irreparably atrophied my brain):
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
What Planet Are You From? (which is what they should have asked the studio exec who greenlit this one)
Postcards from the Edge
And he's fared well with HBO over the last few years, making both "Wit" and "Angels in America" with (my beloved) Emma Thompson. (I just think she's terrific.)
So now here is "Closer," which was originally a play in London by one Patrick Marber. I saw his play "Dealer's Choice" when I was living in London from 1994 to 1995. It was a great, laddish thing about gamblers: funny, raucous, bawdy, and very suspenseful. It was clever and unlike anything I'd seen in the theatre - a bunch of blokes sitting around a card table and dissecting life. It was not stilted and preachy, as single set plays often are (like David Hare's "Racing Demon" which I saw in the round at Lincoln Center in college - didactic and depressing).
I was not familiar with "Closer," and I now know why: it's not my cup of tea. I think I get what it was trying to do but I don't like how it did it.
The action takes place current day (or a few years ago) London: Jude Law's Daniel meets Natalie Portman's Alice on the street: they are gazing at each other as the approach from opposite directions, silently flirting. Then Alice is hit by a cab. Daniel takes her to the emergency room and is taken with this saucy, bohemian waif. They become lovers.
Anna, played by Julia Roberts, and Larry, played by Clive Owen, also meet cute, though through misunderstanding and cybersex (I won't spoil one of the movie's few laughs by elaborating). After an awkward introduction at the aquarium, they become lovers.
Truly, the plot is irrelevant here, and it's somewhat perfunctory, so I won't divulge much. More important is what this film says about relationships and the people who choose to partake of them. Basically, monogamy is a joke, a trick we play on ourselves and others, because we're masochistic and untrusting as humans.
Basically, we have a Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice scenario that does not lead to enlightenment and a stronger valuing of one's primary partner. Mere adultery will not do and all manner of unhealthy fixations begin. This is a film about sex that shows no sex, which is compelling, but it also is about intimacy and it's been shot in such a sterile manner that it's impossible to do anything with these characters except observe them. I felt nothing for any of them, except admiration for their stamina in a two-plus hour series of dialogues. Rarely, if ever, are there more than two people in a scene. It's one-on-one all the time.
A few observations about the cast: only Clive Owen, one of the great smolderers, seems to inhabit his role; you feel his anger and palpable sadness and desire for revenge. Jude Law has a grand time making a rare departure from his golden boy roles (only "Cold Mountain" before this has afforded him that challenge); his dirty, dishevled hair and dorky outfits do more than he does. Natalie Portman tries to play mature but seems to be fighting a constant urge to say, "like," "awesome," and "totally." And then there's Mrs. Moder (Julia Roberts). Julia Roberts won a well-deserved Academy Award for the lead role in "Erin Brockovitch" (more evidence of my theory that Steven Soderbergh is the only director capable of eliciting good performances from questionable actresses: Jennifer Lopez in "Out of Sight" Laura San Giacomo and Andie McDowell in "sex, lies, and videotape" Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Traffic.") but I don't think she's able to do much else other than the winning ingenue. Julia Roberts is what I like to call an institution actor: someone who stands for an archetype and doesn't give performances. My brother and I have generated a few of these: Tom Hanks is the charming everyman; Meg Ryan is the hapless career gal; Robin Williams is the winsome man-child; Michael Douglas is the not-quite-reformed roué. Julia Roberts may be one of our finest romantic comedy actresses. And she does not seem to be capable of stretching (perhaps Mr. Soderbergh will redeem himself with a good role for her after making her look like a chump in "Ocean's Twelve").
Mike Nichols has coaxed from the script some ideas that are very relevant for people in new relationships as well as for those in long-term relationships. Without ever hinting at the concepts of right and wrong and guilt, he asks, is there nobility in telling one's partner the truth? Are we better off knowing even if we're miserable as a result? I mentioned masochism above and we do it to ourselves when we demand of our partner, "Do you fancy her/him?" "How is she/he different than me?" "Give me details." Once seeds of doubt our planted, they're impossible to dig up. But for all those observations/introspections, he's helmed a mean, nasty, mysoginistic film that felt more like Neil LaBute's "In The Company Of Men" than "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" to which many critics have compared this. It's fine to leave guilt out of it but he and his screenwriter(s) never reference responsibility. And that is where he loses me. Additionally, in this world, women are sex objects and emotionally objectified, they are not creatures to whom one would want to get closer, except in a physical sense. Tragically, Julia Roberts plays into that convention too well.
I noticed that a couple in the theatre brought their children; it's hard to imagine which served as a stronger method of birth control: the presence of a crying baby or this movie. So I'll leave it for history and the moviegoing public to decide if we can derive much value from an intimate subject that is so sterilely filmed. At least it was better than "The Birdcage."