Quarrelsome Quartet

Plain talk about sex

CLOSER: Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Patrick Marber, based on his play. Produced by Mike Nichols, John Colley, Cary Brokaw. Executive producers, Scott Rudin, Celia Costas, Robert Fox. Cinematography, Stephen Goldblatt. Edited by John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen. Production design, Tim Hatley. Costume design, Ann Roth. Starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. Columbia Pictures, 2004. R. 100 minutes.

I’ve been down this road before: Mike Nichol’s brilliant screen version of Patrick Marber’s play starring four of the best actors now working meets up with a few otherwise sane critics in the dark alleys of their repressed urges and gets mugged.

I can’t explain the phenomenon, but I have observed that critics’ gang-bang assault is particularly venomous when the film in question casts a jaundiced eye on fidelity, particularly marital or living-together fidelity. If anger and angry words are exchanged in the film, verbal abuses escalate toward the party deemed most responsible, such as the director, writer or star. And if the film’s straying spouse or partner does not express great remorse or come to a bad end, some critics go ballistic.

Years ago now I saw and reviewed Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. I thought it was a terrific film that thoughtfully torched a lot of marital taboos. Few other critics liked the film as I did for its intimate portrait of two smart people trying to save their marriage while honestly investigating the myriad temptations of adultery, and dealing with jealousy.

Likewise, I appreciated seeing the harsh depiction of male misogyny in Neil LaBute’s movies I’ve reviewed, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Basically, I like the sexually toned complexity of LaBute’s work more than most other critics. Earlier this year, John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore opened and closed in one week, well before many in Eugene saw it. Two couples, best friends, go through disruptive conflicts because of extra-marital affairs. It was one of the best films of 2004, just as 2003’s In the Cut was one of last year’s best. In both films, the characters spoke with hard-earned honesty about their sexual feelings.

Most national critics, who are overwhelmingly men, hated these films. Take a look on the IMDB external reviews section if you doubt this. Frank talk about sexual relationships outside of marriage, curiosity about transgressive sexual feelings and questioning the institution of monogamy are apparently off-limits for American movies. Why? We live in a blatantly sexualized age with an obscene divorce rate and unspeakable “sex” crimes against children.

I respect Mike Nichols’s nearly 40-year career as a filmmaker, and I expected him to take as direct and humorous an approach to heterosexuality as he did toward homosexuality in Angels In America, last year’s HBO blockbuster. I was rewarded with a wonderful, enlightening film experience.

Julia Roberts (Anna) gives the best performance of her career here: self-contained, mature and generous. She has grown into her status as an icon and is now a fearless screen presence and a truly beautiful woman. Natalie Portman (Alice) has shed the last traces of girlhood to emerge as a strong-willed, contemporary young woman who knows her own feelings. She is lovely.

Jude Law (Dan) is a writer with a day job of writing obituaries, while he waits for his recently published book to take off. Dan’s interested in pretty women, but he’s very self-absorbed. Clive Owen (Larry) makes the most of the rough-hewn edge he showed in Croupier. Dermatologist Larry gets his kicks in internet chat rooms, which is where he hears from an anonymous woman named Anna who sex-talks him and wants to meet.

If you’ve never been on any sides of the love triangle — and there are more than three — you may learn from Closer that the rutting tension between two men over the same woman is more durable and deeply rooted than the sexual attraction to her. And hopefully, you may also learn that you should use the “tell me all about your sexual experience with (him/her)” ploy only if you really want to know. Think about it.

See Closer. It’s a stand-up movie, not the cruel, bashing session some people imagine. It’s for adults, so be one. Now playing at Cinemark, the picture gets my very highest recommendations as one of the top films of 2004.

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