Nichols Gets Too Close

Still bruised from a Presidential election that turned a lot of people sour, I feel doubly depressed after suffering through Mike Nichols’ new film Closer. Cold and mordant, it takes cynicism one step further. The premise here is that modern relationships, which are based on lies and deceit, like politics, have hit rock bottom, too. Thanks, Mike. We needed that-at Christmas, yet.

Adapted by Patrick Marber from his own play, Closer is a sort of Private Lives for the computer generation, without the wit and wisdom of Noël Coward. When I saw it on Broadway in 1999 with a cast that included Rupert Graves and Natasha Richardson, I rather liked the story of four strangers who explore the extremities of lust, guilt and despair through the raw, shocking and lacerating cruelty of language. Unfortunately, the clipped, epigrammatic dialogue, like emotional shorthand, seems less technically and emotionally impressive on film, and two hours of it turns excessive and mannered. The interchangeable couples who bed and betray each other sound naturalistic with all of their F-words and C-words, but in the nervous close-ups of the movie screen, magnified to zit level, their talk and actions are too stylized to seem real. The four movie stars-assembled to hopefully hype the box-office receipts for a movie that seems obviously doomed commercially-all whine and cry incessantly, but never seem to feel anything.

Jude Law, who has overexposed himself in such a rubbish heap of forgettable films that he’s wearing out his welcome fast, plays Dan, a wannabe novelist who fritters away his time writing newspaper obituaries. On the street, he meets Alice (Natalie Portman in a fuchsia Dynel wig) when she is hit by a taxi and knocked unconscious in the London traffic. Alice is an unfocused American tourist who may or may not have been a trashy stripper named Jane back in the States. Dan and Alice fall madly in heat and move in together. Alice inspires Dan to finally get around to that long-postponed novel. Dan’s publisher sends him to a photographer named Anna, who throws Dan salivating into sexual overdrive for no logical reason except for the fact that she is played by Julia Roberts. Alice shows up before they hit the sheets and sticks around to flirt with Anna, too. If this movie was half as hip and au courant about sex as it pretends to be, Alice and Anna would have fallen for each other and left Dan to fight for scraps. But, like, no-Dan breaks Alice’s heart and picks up with Anna, who hangs out at the London Aquarium with her camera snapping fish. Then, when Dan’s novel flops, he mischievously clicks into a chat room, where he pretends to be Anna to make a date with a sexy dermatologist (talk about oxymorons) named Larry (Clive Owen). When the doctor hits on the real Anna in front of the tropical goldfish tank, instead of being furious, she laughs it off as “Two guys wanking off in cyberspace” and leaves a devastated Dan for Larry, who teaches her new lessons in fun and foreplay with forceps.

Four months into their affair, at an art-gallery exhibit of Anna’s photos, Larry meets Alice and flips again. Anna marries Larry, Larry finds Alice again in an embarrassing scene in a strip joint where she does lap dancing as a slut named Jane. Everybody plays musical mattresses. Larry and Anna split; both Larry and Dan have a go with Alice/Jane, who dyes her hair aquamarine and goes back to New York. And the actors blather bravely: “Lying is the best thing you can do without taking your clothes off, but it’s better if you do.” “I hate retro, I hate the future, so where does that leave me?” “She has the moronic beauty of youth.” It’s the kind of dialogue that can give you hives.

Closer is a dark and unsettling dissection of four people who continually swap partners until they find themselves alarmingly alike in their failure to connect to anything that lasts. It explores the torments of sexual jealousy in a society where passion is fleeting and love changes as often as your underwear, and argues that relationships last longer based on deception and betrayal instead of truth and honesty. The inability of Dan, Anna, Alice and Larry to stay together long enough to figure out what love really means is sadly daunting. These maudlin depressives are drama queens who dress up for depression. To get happy would mean settling for one priority instead of a dozen. Breaking up every time they are forced to tell the truth is easier than venturing bravely out into the real world and living, which can in itself be depressing.

Any way you slice it, Mike Nichols’ smorgasbord of sexual strength and poison is slickly visual. He choreographs the neurotic tango of Closer with a sex-mad vitality that manages to be brittle yet strangely elegant. The actors serve him well, especially Clive Owen, the only cast member from the London stage production (he originally played Dan, not Larry), who is simultaneously randy, needy, vengeful, ruthless and touching. Julia Roberts is less gooey than usual, Jude Law less callow and Natalie Portman less fragile. In the long haul, though, the four characters are too self-absorbed and one-dimensional to sustain interest. In a four-year time frame, they rattle from fashionable Chelsea to the City of London’s stone-gray GF Watts war memorial (from which “Alice” has chosen her name), assembling fictions-of photographs, words, pornography, false declarations of affection-which draw them farther apart, not closer. The damage they inflict ends in disillusionment, regret and loneliness; the toll their lies take is irreversible. Hardly the experience to lighten your load in the holiday season.

Alexander the Mate

Oliver Stone’s Alexander is a lunk-headed train wreck that looks like a tag sale in a 323 B.C. supermarket in old Peking. Where do they get the money for this junk? Anthony Hopkins, as Old Ptolemy, opens and closes this interminable epic disaster with a running commentary on why Alexander was Great, and for the next three hours a hopelessly miscast Colin Farrell, Ireland’s cussing, pub-crawling movie brat, demonstrates why he wasn’t. As Mr. Hopkins babbles on about the Hindu Kush, the Pharoahs of Egypt and the warrior king who tried to conquer the world by leading his armies from Greece to the Middle East, across to Asia and India, he declares: “I’ve known many great men in my life-but only one Colossus!” But what we get is a short, bow-legged bloke with lumpy kneecaps, a black 5 o’clock shadow and a bad Farrah Fawcett peroxide job, trying to cover his tattoos and brogue with something that sounds like ancient Egypt. A Macedonian brogue? You gotta see and hear it to believe it.

History is blank on so much of this material that many scholars have wondered aloud if Alexander was a 2,300-year-old action hero destined for comic-book immortality. But according to the gospel of Oliver Stone, here is a world conqueror with a sorceress mother (Angelina Jolie, covered with snakes to cover her own tattoos, and hissing like a radiator) and a mean-spirited father (Val Kilmer with one eye) who quite naturally slept around with boys just to get out of the house. The brain-dead script by Mr. Stone and Christopher Kyle claims he’s bisexual, but Mr. Farrell’s Alex seems to hate every skirt except his own. “Alexander was never defeated,” says one ossified wag, “except by Hephaistion’s thighs!” His lover, the unpronounceable Hephaistion, is played by Jared Leto, who is prettier than Alex’s wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson), but not as convincing in bed. The film is a costumer’s wet dream: thousands of helmets, swords and shields worn by a ragtag assortment of extras looking like gym rats in chain mail. Mr. Farrell marches into unexplained battle scenes that drag on noisily and endlessly, slaughtering every resistant tribe with his lover at his side. At night, when they’re alone at last, licking their cuts and wounds, they declare teary-eyed declarations of amour: “It is only you I love, above all others!” “By the breath of Aphrodite, the thing I fear most is losing you!” It’s the kind of idiot dialogue they used to write for Tony Curtis movies.

When Hephaistion is back home loitering in the casbah, Alex’s battlefield visits to his wife’s tent grow few and far between. He dreams of what he’s missing, but his loneliness doesn’t stop Mr. Farrell from attending a drag show, stripping naked and casting lascivious looks at his hunky manservants. After six years in India, he returns to Babylon and takes two more wives, but still only has eyes for Jared Leto. Meanwhile, something might have been done to keep a snoring audience interested if the script had been coherent (the co-writer is Laeta Kalogridis, who penned Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, so what do you expect?) and the direction had been sound. But the movie is a snarl of patchy plots in which the characters switch horses and come-hither looks as often as they flex their pecs. The direction is so loaded with irrelevant pretensions of “style”-crafty angles like a massive slaughter seen from the point of view of a soaring eagle, and self-adoring reflections in mirrors-that you wonder if Mr. Stone ever had any clarity of purpose in the first place. Certainly he has failed to infect the audience with the same obsession. Filmed on the plains and rocky slopes of Morocco and in the jungles of Thailand, the movie provides plenty to look at. If the human elements are slow and sappy enough to lull you asleep, the graphic battles are effective. The sweeping sound, fury and bestiality of men and beasts clashing in combat nearly 3,000 years ago makes a colorful and thunderous spectacle. Despite disclaimers that no animals were injured, when you see swords slicing off an elephant’s trunk while blood sprays all over the camera lens, it does make you wonder. The actors are awful. Half of them never speak, and then they die. It’s too long, too boring, too expensive and too embarrassing to make any kind of lasting impact beyond the popcorn stand.

When the dust clears, the thighs do all the acting, and Alexander is a waste of three years and $150 million that proves, once again, how ludicrous men with fat, hairy calves look in skirts and sandals.

Kill Thrills

Martial-arts mavens will thrill to The House of Flying Daggers, in which Zhang Yimou, the acclaimed director of Shanghai Triad, meets Zhang Ziyi, the porcelain star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The action is as kung-phooey as ever, and the visuals less extravagant. But don’t despair: Even if you’re weary of all this Oriental hokum, the film is a romance, built on trellises of unrequited love and jealousy that are even more arresting than the Tang Dynasty Chinese canvases it recreates. Plot: The Flying Daggers are a secret army of ninth-century Robin Hoods rebelling against the despotic emperor and feared by the military. Zhang Ziyi is Mei, a showgirl at the Peony Pavilion, an opulent brothel of fun, games and mayhem. Mei is actually an underground spy for the Daggers who is equally adept at the arts of seduction, archery, dancing, and killing five soldiers with fire arrows at the same time. Jin and Len, two rival captains on a mission to find and destroy the Daggers, throw her in jail, then find themselves attracted to her grace, charm and persuasive beauty. The most dashing of the two officers goes undercover and attempts to infiltrate the Daggers by freeing Mei and escorting her back to her secret hideout, but the plans go awry when he falls madly in love. The director is an audacious stylist, and the intricate, carefully constructed, special-effects-enhanced martial-arts sequences are riveting. Peppermint skies, fields of autumnal orange, lavish costumes, swords with minds of their own, a swaying forest of emerald green bamboo, and a battle to the death between the rivals for Mei’s affection in a spectacular snowstorm provide plenty of requisite eye candy, and Zhang Ziyi is the Audrey Hepburn of China.