I once read somewhere that the opposite of love isn't hate -- it's apathy. 'Closer' is a movie that might be held up to prove that point, offering an uncompromising, intensely vitriolic study of four characters who all seem to enjoy obsessing over each other until the object of their self-delusion no longer returns their narcissistic gaze, and selfish indignation turns into rage.
'Closer' began life as a stage play, written by Patrick Marber, who also adapted the screenplay for filmmaker Mike Nichols ('The Graduate,' 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf'). This is the rare case of a writer and a director seemingly sharing the same sensibility and artistic vision, and 'Closer' is relentless in its deconstruction of classic romantic drama conventions, and in its absolute refusal to sell-out its characters by making them likable. If the four protagonists of 'Closer' are vulnerable, self-important, generally repugnant human beings, they still are funhouse reflections of our own worst behaviors when our love relationships begin to slip through our fingers. We may not like what what these characters do to each other, but few of their emotions are likely to be alien to us.
The film stars four of the most beautiful people in Hollywood. Julia Roberts is Anna, an American photographer living abroad in London, and attempting to rebuild her life after a failed marriage. Jude Law is Dan, a British obituary writer who has been living with a young, romantically-inexperienced American stripper named Alice (Natalie Portman). And Clive Owen is Larry, a British dermatologist who will become the victim of a practical joke after Dan decides to get back at Anna for jilting his attempts at a romantic fling. Over the next four years, all four characters love lives will intersect, with each ultimately feeding off their mate's jealousies, insecurities and fears, all to hurt and betray. They each systematically destroy any hope they might have to achieve and sustain love, often with what seems to be great glee.
The film's most fascinating attribute and its fatal flaw are one and the same -- its story structure. While most dramatic narratives are propelled by a certain kind of connective tissue that ties one scene to the next, Marber instead presents his story as a series of self-contained vignettes, usually separated by many months or even a year (we often don't even know we have moved ahead in time until a few minutes into the next scene). Each of these moments serve as a snapshot of a betrayal, an infidelity, a break-up or some other type of self-destruction. We never see the positive, loving aspects of these characters or their relationships -- only their most egregious acts and most despicable behaviors. It's like a time capsule filled with what would be the opposite of Hallmark moments -- I can only imagine what Anna, Dan, Alice and Larry might write in the Valentine's Day cards they send each other.
The result is a film that distances us from the interior lives of its characters. Though Alice will ultimately emerge as 'Closer's de facto main character (she is our entry point, and the only character that Marber and Nichols seem to have any affinity for), we are never invited in close enough to feel much sympathy for her or any of the other three leads. Some audiences are likely to find this an insurmoutable obstacle, as it's difficult to like a film that offers not a single single likeable character. The upside, however, is that the the film's relentless yet well-modulated pacing gives it an intensity that's truly rare for a Hollywood drama. And the material has a mean streak that I personally quite enjoyed. I can only guess at Marber's personal take on love, but if this is the way he views human romantic interaction, it would seem like he's been burned himself in a big way, or that he simply enjoys watching people hurt each other. Either way, I found his perspective unusual and refreshing for a film of this sort.
How much you enjoy the pure grotesqueries of 'Closer,' may be another question. The film certainly packs some genuine shock value, with high-profile stars like Roberts, Law, Portman and Owen mouthing some of the most adult, vulgar dialogue ever heard in a mainstream film. In one particularly abusive screaming match between Owen's Larry and Roberts's Anna, you can almost feel the collective force of middle-American audiences rocking back in their seats, having just witnessed their beloved Pretty Woman being spat on in the face by some foul-mouthed Brit. Though Marber and Nichols sometimes seem to veer so much to the side of the crass that 'Closer' could easily be accused of being the gross-out dramatic equivalent of the new breed of shock-comedies that began life with 'There's Something About Mary,' ultimately I would argue that the film is perceptive and ultimately humanistic enough that its ends justify its means.
Despite its matinee idol cast, 'Closer' is probably best described as the date movie from hell. It's no surprise it turned off most mainstream audiences -- but never has it been so much smutty fun watching A-list stars systematically destroying each other.
Sony first gave 'Closer' the Superbit treatment in early 2004 when it released the film on DVD, and that release looked quite good. The same holds for this Blu-ray edition, which is simple, direct and natural -- a truly lovely, unassuming-looking transfer. Does this disc offer the greatest upgrade over standard-def I've ever seen on a next-gen title? No. But it looks darn fine, and that's what matters.
Regular readers of this site may recall that I had some issues with a couple of recent Sony titles (namely 'The Holiday' and 'Rocky Balboa') which I felt sacrificed naturalism for pumped-up artificiality. 'Closer' is, well, closer to my personal preferences, which is for a more realistic and unadorned presentation. Colors here are rich and well-saturated -- from the wonderful blues of the aquarium to the almost shocking reds and pinks of the strip club scene -- but they don't veer into blurriness or smearing. There is some appropriate grain to the image, but it is usually not distracting, and the source is otherwise spotless. Detail and sharpness are also first-rate, giving the image a nice sense of depth. And for once, I was not irritated by the contrast, which has pop but doesn't bloom.
If I have a complaint, it is that there is a very slight bit of edginess to the image. It is noticeable right way, from the first scene when we meet the Julia Roberts character in her photography studio -- you can see thin halos around the window grills and brick walls of her flat. This slightly digital cast is present for the rest of the film, but it's hardly fatal, and is the only major distraction in an otherwise excellent transfer.
Sony gives 'Closer' the full BD-50 dual-layer treatment, which may seem odd for a disc that has just about zero supplements (see below). But check out the left sidebar -- this is another Sony title, like 'Identity' and 'Secret Window,' that has a zillion soundtrack and subtitle options. Truly, there is something here for everyone.
The disappointment here isn't the technical quality of the superior uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (at 48kHz/16-bit/4.6mpbs) but the film's sound design. That the movie is almost entirely dialogue is fine. But even in more active scenes, such as the opening "meet cute" on a busy London street, or the vicious Clive Owen-Natalie Portman exchange at the strip club, there is barely a hint of surround use. Ditto for the sparse but effective use of modern pop and rock songs. The mix is completely front-heavy -- a bit more atmosphere would certainly have helped elevate the movie above sounding like a mere filmed stage play.
At least tech specs are solid. Dialogue is excellent -- every syllable is clear and distinct. Dynamic range is completely real and tangible. And the songs, again though sparse, sound great, especially the rumbling rhythms of The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" and Prodigy's immortal "Smack My Bitch Up," which enliven the strip club scene. Is this enough to give 'Closer' a bit of sonic sparkle? Unfortunately, no -- this is just too boring of a soundtrack to rank near the top tier of Blu-ray releases.
'Closer' is one of the few more recent films that I would have really liked to have seen get the special edition treatment. It's an imperfect and difficult movie, but a fascinating one, and would be ideal material for a great director commentary or insightful documentary. Of course, it figures that would be one of the few recent A-list titles that didn't get even a single supplement on standard-def DVD. Same goes for this Blu-ray -- it's as arid as a desert.
The sole extra is a music video for Damien Rice's haunting ballad "The Farmer's Daughter," which bookends the film. The quality is weak, however, with the video 480i only and the vid's 16:9 aspect ratio presented windowboxed in a 4:3 frame.
Interestingly, there is no Theatrical Trailer for 'Closer.' Only a spot for Sony's upcoming 'Perfect Stranger,' starring Oscar-winner Halle Berry, which as of this writing hasn't even been released in theaters yet.
'Closer' is a curious Hollywood effort -- it's got A-list stars, a top director, and a major studio backing it. But it's based on an incendiary, very indie stage play, and is hardly a mainstream date movie. Still, if you like your romances with a bitter twist, you may find 'Closer' a dark, rewarding journey. This Blu-ray release delivers on the bottom line -- the picture quality is quite good, and the audio (while boring) is technically solid. Unfortunately, a lack of supplements was particularly disappointing in this case, as this is one of the few films I would have really liked to have learned more about. Still, if you're curious about 'Closer,' this is a Blu-ray release worth checking out.