Fri, Jan 28, 2005 - Page 17 News List

Talk makes Closer sexy

Verbal intercourse is vigorous, compulsive, painful, funny and the most provocative aspect of this stage play adaptation

By A.O. SCOTT  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Like most interesting movies about sex, Closer, Mike Nichols's deft film adaptation of a well-known play by Patrick Marber, is mostly talk. There are still a few filmmakers -- not all of them French -- who are capable of infusing the bodily expressions of erotic desire with dramatic force and psychological meaning, but the vast majority are content with a few moments of sheet-twisting and peek-a-boo montage.

In the past, Nichols has usually addressed sexuality with an elegant mixture of candor and discretion, and his intention in Closer, which brings him back to the raw, needy emotions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge, seems to show very little while saying a great deal.

There is some display of skin: one of the characters, after all, is a stripper -- another happens to be a dermatologist -- and a pivotal scene unfolds in her place of work. But even that moment is less memorable for Natalie Portman's near-nudity than for the emotional self-exposure of the fully-clothed Clive Owen.

The verbal intercourse that dominates that scene and every other in the film is vigorous, compulsive, sometimes painful and occasionally funny, as well as more stimulating -- for the characters, one suspects, as much as the audience -- than the physical intercourse that is its frequent subject.

It is also mannered, schematic and frequently improbable, defects in Marber's play that Nichols and his strenuously engaged cast labor mightily to overcome.

Although Closer moves gracefully through the streets and rooms of contemporary London, it never quite shakes off the stasis and claustrophobia that haunt even the best screen adaptations of self-conscious, over-reaching serious drama. At times, the smooth naturalism of Nichols's direction emphasizes the archness and artificiality of Marber's dialogue and the unreality of the people speaking it.

Film Notes

Directed by: Mike Nichols

Starring: Natalie Portman (Alice), Jude Law (Dan), Julia Roberts (Anna), Clive Owen (Larry), Nick Hobbs (Taxi Driver), Colin Stinton (Customs Officer)

Running time: 104 mins

Taiwan Release: today


Nonetheless, those people, though they are increasingly difficult to like, do manage to command a degree of curious attention.

There are four of them, free-floating representatives of the disconnected contemporary tribe of wandering city-dwellers, arranged by Marber (who wrote the screenplay) and Nichols into a tight, ever-shifting grid of jealousy, longing and deceit.

The opening sequence is a barbed variation on the romantic comedy cliche of "meeting cute." Portman, playing Alice, a transplanted American, ambles along a crowded sidewalk. Walking toward her is Jude Law, whose character, Dan, is a newspaper obituary writer with literary aspirations.

Their eyes lock across an intersection, into which Alice steps -- looking, as Americans will in London, in the wrong direction. The taxicab that knocks her down is a hulking metaphor for the narrative that follows, in which Alice and Dan -- along with Larry (Owen) and Anna (Julia Roberts), whose own cute meeting via mistaken identity and the Internet soon follows -- collide by accident, continually blindsided by one another and by their own feelings.

Nichols cleverly communicates their disequilibrium by detaching their stories from the usual chronological guideposts. Sometimes the cut from one scene to the next will leap across months or even years, and rather than signal the jump with words on the screen, the film keeps us guessing about how much time has passed until a line of dialogue supplies a clue. A great deal of significant action takes place off screen in those temporal gaps, and what we are witnessing are premonitions and repercussions -- the flirting that precedes and the fighting that follows.

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