- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

“Closer” must be an ironic title, since its vibes are consistently and often smugly alienating. Nevertheless, Patrick Marber’s play, now adapted by the author for director Mike Nichols, has enjoyed a vogue that may be sustainable if film audiences crave a perverse alternative to the holiday spirit of good will toward all.

Evidently, the play struck authentic chords of erotic candor and aggression for a London theater public in 1997. The response was later duplicated in New York. With only four characters and minimal set demands, “Closer” offered its fashionably brazen idiom and sense of complacency for a bargain production cost.

Mr. Nichols and Mr. Marber “open up” the text for evocative London locales that accommodate numerous extras, but “Closer” remains a disenchanting composition for a quartet of needy-to-repulsive voices.

Rachel Portman plays the catalyst, Alice, a wayfarer from the United States who becomes the consort and muse of a struggling writer, Dan, played by Jude Law, beguiled following a chance encounter on the streets of London. Employed as an obit writer, Dan completes a novel, “The Aquarium,” that evidently exploits Alice’s hard-luck story and fetching fragility.

While posing for a jacket photo, he becomes smitten with Julia Roberts’ Anna, also an American expatriate in London. A recent divorcee, she proves susceptible to his infatuation, though somewhat chastened when the intuitive Alice drops by and catches on. However, Alice also becomes a muse for Anna, striking an anthology-worthy tearful pose for her camera.

Having contrived this initial triangle, Mr. Marber squares it off with a second male: a dermatologist named Larry, portrayed by Clive Owen, destined to dominate the show through the charm of intimidation.

His reliably dynamic projection of malice and belligerence may profit from the fact that he portrayed weak-willed Dan on the stage. A lewdly comic interlude, in which Larry and Dan share anonymous dirty typing over the Internet, with the former mistaking the latter for a compatible woman, triggers an expedient chance encounter between Larry and Anna.

Importuned by both men, Anna ends up marrying Larry but carrying on with Dan. Mr. Marber’s predilection for emotional wreckage is reflected in the men’s insistence on blabbing infidelities. Alice walks out when Dan lamely attempts to rationalize his ongoing fancy for Anna. Returning to her old profession, stripping, Alice dallies with Larry when he’s separated from Anna and club-crawls in order to intensify the depravity.

Although no one in his right mind will regard these toxic relationships as salvageable, the author permits Larry to bully his way back into Anna’s defeatist favor. Poor, overmatched Dan is left with the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

At the start of his film career Mike Nichols inherited the gaudiest marital insult-fest of its time, Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” Better yet, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were rarin’ to go as the wranglers. “Closer” betrays an Albee influence, but it’s more like one-sided Albee: “The Zoo Story” stalks again when Larry torments Dan. The “Closer” shortfall does seem more diverting than Mr. Nichols’ exercise in bad-sex creepiness with Jules Feiffer, “Carnal Knowledge.”

The new movie gets freshly overwrought whenever Clive Owen is back on the scene, spreading ill will and uttering ominous obscenities. It’s as if he’d been appointed the official Bad Santa of the 2004 holiday movie season. Making matters worse, the energy in his malice makes the other roles look thankless, so “Closer” is kind of wasted tawdry effort for the co-stars.

**

TITLE: “Closer”

RATING: R (Systematic sexual candor and vulgarity, especially verbal; occasional profanity; fleeting nudity and violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on his own play. Cinematography by Stephen Goldblatt. Production design by Tim Hatley. Costume design by Ann Roth

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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