The long, happy, infidelity-free marriage is either one of life's great mysteries or silly myths. Whatever the case may be, it's definitely not the stuff of rollicking drama (i.e., unless one-half of the miraculously sturdy bond is preparing to die); obviously, discord and dysfunction is where it's at. It's seemingly where many end up at one point or another, which is what enables a play like Patrick Marber's Closer to follow in the grand, histrionic tradition of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Harold Pinter's Betrayal, and grow into a cross-continental theatrical sensation. When the play toured strongly after its heralded (yet unsuccessful) Broadway run in 2000, a film adaptation became a fait accompli; it just took several years to come together. Naturally, the directorial chores fatedly fell to Mike Nichols, an old theater hand himself who pioneered the cinematic language of marital strife in the late '60s and early '70's with the aforementioned Albee piece and Carnal Knowledge. Marber's play owes a particular debt to that latter work, his Closer being a four-character study of two narcissistic males and their alternating dance partners, only randier and updated to incorporate the nettlesome influence of Internet chat rooms (outdated, to be sure, but, given the script's chronology, it works even better now than it did five years ago). The whole sordid affair is set off by the kind of flirtatious exchange of glances that occur daily in major metropolitan cities with decent public transportation. Such moments are generally fleeting; this one is not thanks to a runaway lorry and an American's unfamiliarity with London's traffic flow. The American's name is Alice (Natalie Portman), immediately identifiable as a stripper based on wardrobe choice alone. The man she's hooked is Daniel (Jude Law), immediately identifiable as a writer due to his affectedly disheveled appearance. After whisking her off to an emergency room, the two keep up their flirting; they have a nice banter, meaning sex, and possibly a relationship, is in the offing. One year later, Daniel's in a photographer's studio having his headshot snapped for the semi-biographical novel he's written about Alice, who is now his significant other. He's a much more confident fellow now, a cad even, and, as such, draws the pheromonal attention of Anna (Julia Roberts), the married woman in whose studio he's having his picture taken. Now, it's Daniel dictating the terms of the flirtation that quickly becomes transgression, which does not escape the notice of Alice when she stops by to check on his progress. Daniel, however, is eventually rebuffed, and, in a pique of resentment, the vile culmination of hours of stalking, plots a cruel revenge by sending a lonely pervert to visit her at one of her favorite haunts, the Aquarium. That his pawn turns out not to be a sweaty-palmed pervert, but rather a self-proclaimed "caveman" in the dashing, dermatologist guise of Larry (Clive Owen) backfires spectacularly on Daniel; he becomes the couple's private joke, their "cupid." Soon enough, they are married, which means Daniel now has Anna right where he wants her. An extramarital affair begins, two relationships are shattered, and more childish shenanigans ensue.
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What rescues Closer from the dead end misanthropy of Neil Labute's work post-In the Company of Men is Alice, the youngest of the four, and, by virtue of her profession, the worldliest. In the original production, Alice, in the capable hands of Anna Friel, came off as an alluringly sharp-tongued tart equipped with as impenetrable an exterior as the others; Portman, though, under Nichols' subdued direction, has softened the character's edges and invested her with a depth of feeling that didn't exactly leap off of the page in Marber's Pinter-esque writing. Still, her Anna is no stripper with a heart of gold; she's just a beautiful girl who knows men better than they know themselves because that's her job. That she must've known all along that the innocent, insecure writer who cut the crusts off his sandwiches would transmogrify into an instinctual beast makes her arc all the more tragic, and Portman drives this palpably, painfully home with her best performance since Beautiful Girls (and, yes, the parallels between those two characters are extremely unnerving). Also turning in some of the best work of her career is Roberts, who either needs to collaborate with Nichols more often or take second-banana, sad-sack roles more often. Law is typically brilliant (last year's backlash pertaining not at all about the quality of his performances, but, instead, the product of too many roles in one's wheelhouse), while Owen, who originated the role of Daniel onstage, fumes and schemes with a deliciously malevolent intensity. But Closer is a feat of language, and Marber dazzles with curt, crackling exchanges that bruise and bloody. He's obviously been combatant and casualty in these wars, but the gesture imparted by its denouement suggests he's also been transformed. It's in that bittersweet epiphany of hope where the secret to enduring and faithful may lie. Columbia TriStar presents Closer as one of their "Superbit" titles, which means it boasts an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), superb Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and, disappointingly, no extras save for a few theatrical trailers, a Damian Rice music video for "The Blower's Daughter," and annoying menu music. Keep-case.