Too Close, Not Close Enough Nichols Muses on Intimacy, Almost

Mike Nichols’ Closer, from a screenplay by Patrick Marber and based on his play, transposes the theatrical version’s two British female leads, Natasha Richardson and Anna Friel, to onscreen Yanks Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman. This somehow diminishes the ethnic intensity of the four-scorpions-in-a-jar plot involving criss-crossing coupling in a London still swinging as feverishly in the 90’s as it did in the 60’s-at least on stage and screen. And Mike Nichols, film poet laureate of such iconoclastic sex-and-love pyrotechnics as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Graduate (1967), Carnal Knowledge (1971), Heartburn (1986) and Postcards from the Edge (1990), is on hand once more with his corrosive skills at satirically scraping away the barnacles of true and lasting love.

On this occasion, Mr. Marber gives the director scintillating dialogue with which to confound and torture his four inconstant lovers, no matter how many forms of copulation they can devise for each other.

Yes, this is an adult movie to end adult movies, and it’s a welcome relief from all the spongy, soggy multimedia mish-mosh sloshing over the nation’s screens. But even the most adult of adults may crave a little more warmth in their sexier entertainments. In this respect, Closer is ice-cold-though for a change in Mr. Nichols’ often misogynous career, it’s much harder on the men than the women. Indeed, the whole point of the movie seems to be how jealous, suspicious and downright paranoid men can get over how well (or how badly) they stack up sexually against their competition. Not that the women here work very hard to reassure their mates of the moment. But in the process of taking these treacherous times more in stride, Closer’s women tend to become amiable and adaptable ciphers without any distinctive personalities of their own. They are only marginally feminist, to the extent that they make money outside the relationship and never sink to becoming babying mommas to their little-boy lovers.

Still, the delight is in the details of such discourse. From the moment Jude Law’s Dan encounters Natalie Portman’s Alice at the scene of a meet-cute traffic accident, the screen is alive with the visual rhythms and erotic unknowns of the big city. After Alice is hit by a brake-screeching vehicle, she recovers consciousness to find herself staring up at the solicitous Dan, and slyly and instinctively flirts with him by cooing “Hello, stranger,” oodles of come-hither in her voice. Soon we learn that Dan is a journalist writing obituaries for a London newspaper when he’s not struggling to finish a novel, while Alice is a stripper from New York on vacation in London. In most movies, this would be the beginning of a romance-one not without its complications and setbacks, but never seriously endangered by them before the fade-out clinch. Not here, however.

After moving in with Alice, Dan makes a play for Julia Roberts’ Anna, an American photographer commissioned to take the dust-jacket photo for his soon-to-be-published novel. Anna has read the advance galleys and suggests that Dan change the title to The Aquarium. There’s enough of a contrast between the confidently self-contained Anna and the more nervously impulsive and emotionally needy Alice to make Dan’s interest in a new dalliance a little more than that of an undiscriminating womanizer.

When Alice arrives, interrupting the budding betrayal, she immediately senses from the expression on Dan’s face that something has transpired besides a photo shoot. Alice asks Anna to take her picture as well, and Anna agrees too readily out of her own feelings of guilt. Dan leaves, Alice accuses, Anna denies-the characters in this movie don’t waste much time on conversational preliminaries. Ironically, it is Alice’s near-tearful expression that provides Anna with one of her best photographs, which is shown at a subsequent gallery exhibit attended by all four co-protagonists.

But first, Dan and a London dermatologist named Larry (played by Clive Owen) communicate in an Internet sex-chat room, with Dan fraudulently identifying himself as a sexually omnivorous “Anna.” The torrid exchanges between “Anna” and Larry constitute, to my mind and memory, the most wildly inflammatory language ever seen on a movie screen in a commercial film. Dan’s “Anna” arranges a rendezvous with the visibly and audibly aroused Larry, to be held at the significantly chosen aquarium. There, Larry discovers the real Anna, and after some embarrassing disclosures about his Internet misunderstanding, Anna deduces that it was Dan who misled him. Indeed, Anna is more amused than insulted by Larry’s misconceptions about “Anna.”

As it turns out, the outrageous Internet scene is merely the prelude to an anything-goes promiscuity, shattering first one coupling, then another, then a third, with graphic descriptions of the inevitable infidelities adding to everyone’s torment and torture. By the end of the film, one couple remains momentarily secure and the other is torn apart, with each partner separated from the other by an ocean. None of these characters has demonstrated a capacity for staying happy for very long, much less faithful and trusting. This, like it or not, is the joyless world of Mike Nichols and Patrick Marber, and as I said at the outset, Closer is an extremely well-executed entertainment exclusively for grown-ups: Leave the kiddies at home. On the already-boring subject of the Oscars, if there were one for Best Performance by an Ensemble, Closer’s four players would be strong contenders-though if tradition is any guide, their onscreen behavior would be deemed too licentious for the tender sensibilities of the usually chaste Academy voters.

Disappointed Fan

Jean-Luc Godard’s Notre Musique demonstrates that after 50 years of filmmaking, the 74-year-old enfant terrible auteur may have lost some of his power to enchant (as he did me for so many years), but his power to enrage remains secure in this strangely chaotic period in both human history and film history. Why am I enraged, when I was once a hard-core Godard-ophile who used to wrestle a hard-core Godard-ophobe like Judith Crist of the late New York Herald Tribune? (Three falls out of five, a Godard film would wind up on the top of my 10-best list, and at the top of her 10-worst.)

In Notre Musique, Mr. Godard talks about Jews as if they’d emerged triumphantly from the death camps to promptly drive the Palestinians out of their homeland. It’s not enough that he skips a few wars in between; he actually invents three fictional Jewish characters to express Jewish guilt over Israel’s policies rather than confront his own feelings about the French and Swiss acquiescence during the Nazi Holocaust.

Long before I was a Godardian, I grew up in a casually anti-Semitic household, in which my Greek-born father and mother had nothing but praise for Hitler until he invaded Greece, after which they decided he’d gone too far and had to be stopped. They’d supported Alf Landon in 1936 over Franklin Roosevelt, even though we were on relief at the time, but they supported Roosevelt over Wendell Willkie in 1940 purely on foreign-policy issues. Vestiges of anti-Semitism remained in my Christian sensibility until the pictures of the death camps were shown on the screens of the world. My deep guilt as a Christian remains with me to this day.

I am frankly surprised that most of my colleagues haven’t seen through Mr. Godard’s evasive paradoxes, the banal anti-“Zionist”/anti-American prejudices that he shares with his countrymen, whether French or Swiss. Indeed, if Israel and America didn’t exist, European intellectuals would’ve had to invent them to explain all the world’s ills and injustices. And I write this as someone who is as disenchanted with George W. Bush’s policies as many of my Jewish friends are with Ariel Sharon’s. But Mr. Godard hasn’t earned the right to take the mantle of Jewishness upon himself as if it were some sort of Halloween mask.

Regarding his essayistic artistry on film, however, I commend his selected war footage in the “Inferno” section of Notre Musique. The “Purgatory” sequence becomes tedious in its bland literalness, while the “Paradise” section-with U.S. Marines guarding a beach in Rolle, Switzerland (the director’s current stomping ground)-is just plain silly.

But what really disgusted me was the offscreen description of a mock suicide-bombing episode in Jerusalem, in which one of Mr. Godard’s characters, a Jewish woman journalist, is shot to death by the Israeli police, who later discover that her bag contains not a bomb, but rather some books. When one thinks of all the Jewish women in Israel who have been murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers, why this? Or is one Jewish life more precious than another?

Chilly Noir Nights

The “Essential Noir” series remains in high gear with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), starring Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Howard Da Silva, Phillip Terry, Doris Dowling and Frank Faylen. The film tracks an alcoholic’s nightmarish weekend on Manhattan’s shadowy Third Avenue in the days of the El and is based on Charles Jackson’s autobiographical novel; Miklós Rózsa’s theremin-embellished score is haunting, to say the least. The second feature is John Farrow’s much-underrated The Big Clock (1948), with Milland again, this time playing a crime journalist hunted by the megalomaniacal publisher (Charles Laughton) of a Luce-like newsmagazine. With Maureen O’Sullivan, Rita Johnson, George Macready and Dan Tobin, based on a novel by Kenneth Fearing (Thursday, Dec. 2).

John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), with Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffe, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore and Marilyn Monroe in one of her delectable dumb-blonde cameos that year (the other being in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, in which she was on the receiving end of George Sanders’ quips as Addison DeWitt, every critic’s role model), is the first classic caper movie and has been frequently imitated here and abroad. Its pastoral American-tragedy ending still sets it apart.

The second feature is Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), with Sterling Hayden, Elisha Cook Jr., Marie Windsor, Coleen Gray and Timothy Carey. It’s a more playful and less somber caper flick than the Huston film, but it’s marred by a Dragnet-style narration that’s false to the subjectivity of Hayden’s point-of-view protagonist and ring leader (Friday and Saturday, Dec. 3-4).

Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) features Gene Tierney in the title role and Dana Andrews as Detective Mark McPherson, Clifton Webb as the epicene columnist Waldo Lydeker and Vincent Price as smooth-talking womanizer Shelby Carpenter, the three moths flitting about her flame. Judith Anderson, a luminous Lady Macbeth onstage and the unforgettable Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), plays one of the suspects.

The second feature is Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), a lively entertainment with Ella Raines as a spunky secretary trying to save her boss from the electric chair for murdering his estranged wife. The film also features Franchot Tone, Alan Curtis, Fay Helm, Thomas Gomez and the omnipresent Elisha Cook Jr., who gave one memorable character performance after another in those years, all the way up to the moment he was gunned down by badman Jack Palance in George Stevens’ Shane (1953) (Sunday and Monday, Dec. 5-6).

Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), with Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Richard Kiley and Murvyn Vye, features Widmark as a subway pickpocket who gets more than he bargained for when he pilfers the purse of a sweaty, heavily made-up dame (Peters) and finds himself pursued by both the cops and a group of communist spies in our midst. It’s one of Fuller’s broadest and most baroque noir thrillers.

The second feature is Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947), from a screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, with Victor Mature, Richard Widmark, Brian Donlevy, Coleen Gray, Karl Malden and Taylor Holms. Mature, the much-ridiculed hunk of his era, showed that he could act in this role as an imprisoned thief who decides to go straight and cut his sentence short by turning state’s evidence against his old buddy, Tommy Udo, played with memorably maniacal glee by newcomer Richard Widmark, who achieved instant stardom in the scene where he pushes an uncooperative old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs (Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 7-8).