Getting “Closer”

“Closer” (Sony Pictures) is a movie about love at first sight – and it’s to writer Patrick Marber’s credit that he manages to make that notion sound utterly unbearable. If the protagonists, once they found someone, could only keep their eyes to themselves, they would be perfectly happy. But then we wouldn’t have this gut-wrenching masterpiece of a film.

The film begins with two strangers eyeing one another other on a crowded London sidewalk. Time slows down; romantic music plays. It’s love at first sight. A happy (car) accident gives them an excuse to get acquainted. We jump forward a year, and Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman), the couple we met at the beginning, are still together. He’s being photographed for the jacket of his new novel by Anna (Julia Roberts). She looks at him over the lens of the camera; it’s love at first sight, again. But she rejects him on the grounds that he’s already taken. In revenge, he manages to trick Larry (Clive Owen), an online sex-hunter, into meeting her at the London Aquarium. They get to talking; it’s love. She brings him to her first gallery opening, where he meets Alice, and is instantly smitten. While the two of them flirt, Dan and Anna reveal that they aren’t over each other – and things begin to get very complicated.

“Closer” is about truth. All four characters, for their own less-than-pure reasons, are firm believers in the moral necessity of honesty. None of them are able to keep their infidelities under wraps. And when the truth comes out, it displays very little healing power.

“I just want the truth … because I’m addicted to it. Because without it we’re animals,” Dan says while demanding to know whether or not Alice slept with Larry. But the film suggests the opposite. When lying, these people are civil, functional human beings. The truth turns them into savages. It’s a weapon used to inflict damage or a shield used to defend callousness, and the characters wield it skillfully.

These are people who depend on their conversational skills to survive; even Alice, a 20-something stripper and self-described waif, can parry with Dan about euphemisms like a trained sophist. So when the characters spar, the back-and-forth is as exhilarating as it is stinging. Larry insists on learning all the details of Anna’s affair with Dan, down to the taste of his semen. “It tastes like yours, but sweeter,” Anna fires back in an instant, and the pain is more palpable then if she had punched him in the face.

That rebuke is doubly shocking because it comes from the mouth of Julia Roberts, playing her first unlikable character in memory. There are no heroes in “Closer;” we see all of the characters at their most cruel and barbaric. Yet in spite of all the despicable behavior on display, all four actors manage to make us feel for their subjects. Director Mike Nichols tempers the bitter dialogue with empathetic displays of the characters’ humanity. As each conflict comes to a head, it’s impossible to choose sides. Each character has a real human heart; they’re almost as surprised as we are to find such awfulness inside it.

There are no pat conclusions. By the end of the film, it’s hard to believe that love and truth are even virtues worth supporting. That’s not a cheery sentiment to mull over during the holidays, but that’s the point of “Closer” -?to take our tightly-held notions and give them a very close look.

“Closer” opens in Washington, D.C. Friday.

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