Four to Tango

Two couples, multiple infidelities, and countless lies: The math doesn't add up in Mike Nichols' latest male-female equation.

"Men are crap," says Julia Roberts, with all the Oscar-winning authority she can summon from Erin Brockovich. And you certainly believe her in Closer, which opens Friday, Dec. 3, at the Guild 45 and other theaters. Not only because of the Oscar, of course, but because sheer male crappiness is so abundantly on display in this adaptation of Patrick Marber's 1997 English stage play. The evidence, the stink, is undeniable. Half the characters in this four-hander are male, and they're both crappy. What are the odds of that?

Not good enough for director Mike Nichols. If anything, he's dealing from the bottom of the deck in Closer, taking a play that's already bleakly pessimistic about relations between the sexes and making sure every face card wears a frown. Even if his two female leads, Anna (Roberts) and Alice (Natalie Portman), come off slightly better than their obsessed, caddish male counterparts, Nichols makes them complicit in a nasty formulation. It's not enough that men are so branded—love is crap, too, which is an awfully slim sentiment to support an entire movie.

Alice and Dan (Jude Law) meet by chance in London. Strangers, they make eye contact on the street; distracted, the red-haired American is promptly knocked down by a taxi, and Dan takes her to the hospital. He's an unhappy journalist, and she's an unhappy stripper; they pour out their souls to each other during the course of one morning. In most romantic comedies, this would be called the meet-cute device: He buttoned-down, she free-spirited, together adorable.

Flash forward a year or so. Photographer Anna is approached by a pervy doctor named Larry (Clive Owen). They've been set up, prankishly, by Dan (Anna's former client), but the prank backfires: These two strangers also fall in love; and in time, they even wed. Again, a different movie would follow their courtship and marriage, but Closer has no interest in making cute of all these coincidences. Instead of being connected by narrative threads over some four years, the four principals are bound together by barbed wire. Each time one of them moves, someone else gets hurt.

In sexual terms (and there's nothing explicit here), Closer would be called a roundelay, but there's absolutely no sense of joy or impulsiveness to the bed-hopping. Each tryst is treated like Sophie's Choice—awash in anguish, not arousal. The movie is one long downer, romantically speaking; couples who think it's a date flick may need Cialis for weeks after seeing it. Our four leads talk about love, but revenge and betrayal seem to be their driving emotions. Even divorce papers can trigger an afternoon shag (and to think that a card and flowers are so much cheaper).

If the writing were any good, all the stage-bound sexual treachery might be forgivable, but this is no Dangerous Liaisons, and there aren't even any sword fights for relief. (When Owen says he could take Law in a scrap, I briefly envisioned a bare-knuckle alternative to Colin Firth and Hugh Grant's limp-wristed slapping in Bridget Jones, but nothing comes of it.) Marber is no Christopher Hampton, and the lines that stand out do so for the wrong reasons. "Why isn't love enough?" Alice wails when Dan says he's leaving her for Anna. Silly girl—because it's a movie, a movie where love is tossed up like clay pigeons for target practice.

The stage-crafted characters are just as disposable—not clever enough for Edward Albee, not mean enough for Neil LaBute. Anna is just a fickle cipher, Dan's a needy whiner, and Alice changes motivations with her wigs. Only Owen, having barely escaped from King Arthur with crown intact, suggests better things. His unhygienic dermatologist relishes nasty sex and pornographic chat rooms; Larry falls for, then betrays, Anna with the same insouciance that asks, "Were you seriously expecting anything else?" While the others look so wounded, only he appears to understand that getting hurt is a given in affairs. (It helps, perhaps, that Owen has the perspective of having played easily bruised Dan in the original stage production.)

Though she won't get much of an acting workout in Ocean's Twelve next week, Roberts has a nicely astringent, guarded quality here. Her Annie Leibovitz–like photographer keeps everyone on the other, safer side of her lens, but Anna is ultimately blank, a brick wall against which Dan and Larry crash themselves. Like the glowing, oversize prints at her photography show (the theme is "strangers," hint, hint), her sphinx doesn't get more or less mysterious with size. It's the same riddle, no matter how men look at her.

Treading perhaps too close to Alfie, Law is again the serial bastard, only not as cocksure. Wire-frame eyeglasses are supposed to make him more vulnerable, I guess. If that's not enough, Nichols ladles on Damien Rice's lachrymose ballad "The Blower's Daughter" to drench the movie with pained sensitivity. Dan is a guy who was born to be dumped, and Law shows you something of his sweaty self-knowledge. (The joke is that he writes obituaries for his newspaper, so he should expect the worst out of life.)

Portman's presence mainly feels like casting against type. Tarted up (but always strategically covered), she never conveys the recklessness of, say, Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And whether people are ready for Queen Amidala riding a brass pole at a strip club is a different matter.

AN A-LIST director who always has his pick of material, Nichols apparently means Closer's oh-so-serious tone to make some grand statement about men and women, but it feels awfully familiar. In his oldies like The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Carnal Knowledge, there's the same incomprehension and borderline animosity men feel toward women. Here, as before, they're always beseeching, and the women always rebuffing. Sex is easily had, but there's never a meeting of the minds.

The closest any two characters get to honest connection is when Dan, taking a woman's screen name, lures Larry into cybersex on the Web. Although it's tedious to watch them type, there's also something sweet to their obscenities: At last, each one thinks, someone who understands me.

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