When Alice and Dan (Natalie Portman and Jude Law) first see each other, it seems like the stuff of fairy tales. They make eye contact as they walk toward each other on a crowded London street, smile and make a genuinely sweet connection. Then Alice takes a distracted step into the street and is promptly hit by a taxicab. The two should've taken this as a sign of very bad things to come.
After their meeting, the film jumps ahead to photo shoot where Dan meets photographer Anna (Julia Roberts), and they find themselves kissing shortly before Alice, Dan's now longtime girlfriend, arrives to meet him. A strange Internet chat leads to Anna meeting Larry (Clive Owen), winding up in their entanglement, and things get further entangled when each of the four eventually meet each other. They also get rather detestable and cruel.
Nichols and screenwriter Patrick Marber (who wrote the play the film is adapted from) seem determined to make the nastiest movie about relationships ever put to screen, and they are certainly in the ballpark. This rivals stuff like Neil LaBute's super dark Your Friends and Neighbors and some of the more disturbing work of Todd Solondz (Happiness, Storytelling).
They genuinely play upon the paranoia and suspicions that destroy and sink the average relationship. While some of the stuff these characters get away with might feel a bit unrealistic, the outrageous situations are tempered by characters speaking not only intelligently, but in a fashion that feels true to life. The characters all share damaging selfish traits that make it almost necessity to hurt themselves and others.
Portman, who shone earlier this year in Garden State, truly makes the jump to more adult fare with this one. She spends a decent chunk of the film near naked, and her dialogue and interaction with this cast are a far cry from her oddly coifed space battles in the Star Wars films. Clive Owen, who was miserable in King Arthur, makes up for it and then some with his portrayal of Larry, a dermatologist who is alternately the sweetest man alive and a criminally harsh pontificator. He's capable of such utter cruelty that he makes one wish to hide under the theater seat and pray for the bad man to go away.
Owen, Law, and Portman all have showier roles, and it would probably be easy for some to dismiss the work of Julia Roberts as underwhelming and too reserved. That would be a mistake, for her calm work here acts as a sort of anchor for the film, albeit an unstable one. Anna is a deceptive, a quiet sweet person on the surface whose outward behavior doesn't match her cheating actions. She might not have the obvious nastiness of the male characters, but she's equally horrible in the end.
I don't expect too many folks to actually enjoy watching Closer. I even expect that some dates will end on a rather bad note as people start asking each other questions on the ride home. So if you've been misbehaving as of late, I suggest taking your date to The Incredibles.