Talk Dirty to Me

See Natalie Portman curse in Closer.

Beautiful people behaving badly 

Mike Nichols’ film of Closer (Columbia Pictures) is being hailed as an event for putting sex front and center, even though it’s the sort of movie that makes you think twice about having it—or at least, given the inevitability of betrayal, risking intimacy. It’s the perfect sex picture for an increasingly puritanical culture. It doesn’t have any! The undressing is all psychological, and the deeper the emotion, the tighter and hungrier Nichols’ close-ups. The septuagenarian director of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Carnal Knowledge, and other fashionably cynical portraits of heterosexual nastiness has recovered his killer instincts. Chalk up another one for Viagra.

Adapted—faithfully, I suspect—by Patrick Marber from his own play, Closer is a sort of hermetically sealed chamber drama in which four strangers (the only people in the movie, essentially) play musical beds. In the beginning, buttoned-up obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) locks eyes with punky, magenta-haired sexpot Alice (Natalie Portman) on a London street. Then boom: She gets smashed by a car. They chat and flirt in the hospital waiting room, then on a bus, then in front of Dan’s workplace—and you can tell this is an “opened-up” play because the conversation is fluid even though the settings keep shifting.

There’s a jump in time, and Dan is having his book-jacket photo taken for a novel about Alice, with whom he has been living. But the photographer is Anna, and Anna is Julia Roberts; and after some arch banter and some more psychological undressing, the two end up with their tongues down each other’s throats. That’s when Portman’s Alice shows up and things get a mite uncomfortable. Dan is so frustrated by his (apparently unrequited) love for Anna that he goes on the Internet, pretends to be her, and has cyber-sex with horny dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen). Then he directs Larry to the real Anna’s favorite spot: the aquarium, where Larry finds her and, to her dismay, purrs sweet obscenities into her ear.

I have to confess: I love it when big movie stars talk dirty. Their images are so sanitized, and besides, they can’t say anything naughty on television or the FCC will stomp all over them. And it’s not like there’s much sex talk in mainstream American movies. Audiences are comfortable with four-letter words hurled in anger in the course of hideously violent acts, but used to express love or desire, they’re a little, uh, icky, and they also threaten our moral values. That’s why it’s fun to hear Clive Owen interrogate Julia Roberts about how she fellated Jude Law, or see Owen being straddled by Star Wars’ icy princess Portman in a G-string spewing four-letter anatomical references. What a happy voyeur am I.

Closer is about how these people bond and then need, for some perverse but deeply human reason, to test those bonds, which is a terrible idea. It’s not an accident that a key disastrous conversation occurs in an opera house playing Così Fan Tutte, Mozart’s bitter farce of two men testing their fiancees’ fidelity. I’m not going to spoil the movie by telling you who ends up with whom, but it’s worth pointing out that the two characters who at first appear to be victimized end up as victors. They’re the unromantic ones, the ones who calculate coldly the synergistic relationship between sex and power.

It must be said that there’s something immensely pleasurable about the instant intimacies of beautiful people. And if your taste runs to psychodrama with barbed metronomical banter and booming dramatic beats, you’ll probably think this is a hell of a good movie. It certainly has more nuances than comparable exercises by Neil Labute, who always stacks the deck by making one of his characters a demonic psychopath. These people all have their reasons. But Closer is in the same arena as Labute, and I found it sour and airless, with the feel of a mathematical proof. The last, slow-motion shot, a sardonic variation on the first, is a slap in the face.

The acting is superb, though, with one key exception. Jude Law was in Alfie a few weeks ago, and although his character here is supposed to have depth, it’s hard to see him as anything but a callow womanizer. Maybe a more resourceful actor would have made us forget the last six performances this year, but Law doesn’t have many tricks up his sleeve. On the other hand, Natalie Portman has a chance to prove she’s not the petrified zombie of those Star Wars pageants; she’s raw here, with a pleading presence that can suddenly turn cold. Clive Owen is stunning, too: I’d never before noticed his big choppers—the center of a frightening, big-bad-wolf leer. He’s the rough trade John Lennon to Jude Law’s fine-featured Paul McCartney.

My favorite of the quartet, though, is Julia Roberts. Dressed in loose, unglamorous clothes and with her hair pulled back, she gives the quietest, least ostentatious performance: wary and overdefended, but in her very tightness exquisitely vulnerable. I can never believe how this woman, insufferably exhibitionistic on talk and award shows, could have such uncanny radar when the (movie) cameras roll. It’s enough to make you believe in the magic of acting—in alchemy.