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True Liars



Mike Nichols, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.9



Posted: December 04, 2004

By Laurence Station

The key line in Closer, Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's play (Marber also wrote the screenplay), comes from self-described caveman Larry (Clive Owen), when the straight-to-the-point dermatologist describes the human heart as "a fist wrapped in blood." Such a line is typical of the movie's very writerly dialogue, but it nonetheless succinctly encapsulates the film's hard-edged look at relationships in the big city (in this particular instance, London). For all of its blunt truths, however, Closer is a uncomfortably stagey work that neither plumbs great depths of understanding regarding male-female relations nor provides us a group of people worth caring about.

Owen, portraying the most honest character, also gives the strongest performance, managing to convey a needy brutishness and crafty intellect from an otherwise everyday professional. Even when forced to deliver such impossibly silly lines as "She has the moronic beauty of youth, but she's sly," Owen stays true to the center of Larry's pragmatic, lustful nature. The remaining players populating this contrived mess of a coincidental foursome -- who swap partners but rarely exchange anything remotely resembling genuine intimacy -- don't fare nearly as well.

Jude Law's obit-writer/novelist Dan comes across as a smug brat, jumping wily-nilly between a pair of American beauties: the older, seemingly more sensible Anna (Julia Roberts) and young, high-spirited Alice (Natalie Portman). Dan's involvement with the two ranges from marriage (Anna) to strip club pick-up (Alice). Rather than witness the four being particularly close while playing musical beds (all of it "off-stage," by the way), we spend most of the film listening to them debate the merits of telling the truth and forgiving one another for past trespasses. The big message here apparently deals with how everyone deceives those closest to him or her, no matter if they're doing so explicitly or unintentionally. It's all a vicious game of one-upmanship, where control and possession are primary goals -- as opposed to, say, love and companionship.

In a film so dependent on relationships, it helps if there are actual sparks between the lead characters. Law and Roberts have zero, while Owen and Portman actually do manage to generate heat -- but that's almost by default, as she is a stripper plying her trade for his pound notes in a private room. Frankly, these aren't likable people. That doesn't necessarily have to be a deal-breaker -- the annals of cinema are full of great films about thoroughly despicable folks -- but some sort of connection to these characters would certainly help us empathize when their love games devolve into a cannibalistic emotional feeding frenzy. If misery indeed loves company, as the old adage goes, it's got a full house to play with here.

Ultimately, Closer gambles its success on a jaded male perspective that simply fails to pay off. Such depressively cynical material has been better and, crucially, more entertainingly addressed, both recently in Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy and some thirty-five years ago in Nichols' own Carnal Knowledge. The heart may indeed by a fist wrapped in blood, as Larry says, but it still requires a pulse in order to live.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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