Closer to Python: My Mike Nichols Day, Part I

The old McClurg Theatres are gone. It's kind of sad, among many other films, I remember seeing Lawrence of Arabia there (the re-release, sonny) as well as walking out of Ishtar. However, my disappointment was short-lived because they have been replaced a block away by the River East Theatres, a 20-count-'em-20, state-of-the-art theater complex with stadium seating (which is what happens when you finally let a short person design a movie house).

I dragged my friend, Jan, to see Closer. Well, not "dragged," exactly; I just warned her that I didn't think it was going to be very good, but that I wanted to see it anyway (we've been friends for over 40 years, so she's used to such perversity). Last year, I saw a stage production of Closer at my old acting studio in L.A. that was absolutely loathsome, not necessarily because of the performances (fairly strong) or production values (low-budget, but inventive and uniformly excellent) but because I felt the script was a modern example of a butt-naked emperor, albeit a well-spoken one. I remember leaving the theater that evening feeling not only vaguely unclean over my complicity in perpetrating a hateful, useless piece of "art," but with a gnawing feeling of anger that grew rather than dissipated with the passing days.

I am delighted to report that I feel precisely the same way about Mike Nichols's filmed version of the verbally facile Patrick Marber's play, Closer: it's a big fat shiny turd. (I'm mostly alone on this, but it's not the first time.)

The production values are superb, from the melancholic smart-and-lonely-loser songs of the soundtrack to the understated palette the designers use to dress and backdrop the actors. London itself has never looked more elegant, sad and chilly, in one scene where Natalie Portman is wearing a tank top in what you'd think would be summer, you want to throw a sweater over her little shoulders even before she mentions how cold she is. There is no respite to be had in any corner.

And that, I suppose some smarty-pants people will say, is the point: life is hard and love is brutal. To which I say "so what?" That's a revelation? That's a reason to drag my ass out in zero degree temperatures and pay $8.50 and give up two hours of my life?

Smarty-pants art is no longer acceptable. I don't care if you can write (really) pretty words and find (really, really) pretty people to say them. I need a little illumination with my non-news, thank you, along with some characters, even one character, I actually care about. If I want to see that life is hard (in London), I'll watch any Mike Leigh film. If I want to see that love is brutal, how about or Little Voice, The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne or even the original Alfie?

One note on the talents of the more visible people involved: they are uniformly top-notch. Each one of the cast delivers a pitch-perfect performance, and I have to say I was blown away by Julia Roberts who gives a far, far richer and more nuanced performance as Anna than she did as showy blowhard Erin Brockovich. And Mike Nichols has an excellent understanding of what motivates these people and how they interact with one another.

What I don't understand is his motivation for spending a year of his life on a project like this. I'm aggravated to have spent the two hours I did.

xxx c

*Which was, I realize now, a lovely piece of symmetry in that it was directed by Mike Nichols's former comedy partner, Elaine May.