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Liars: (l-r) Owen, Portman, Roberts and Law in Closer.

Rotten Bastards
By Shawn Stone

Directed by Mike Nichols

Attention moviegoers: Hollywood has delivered another Christmas miracle. Last year, the usual saccharine cinematic offerings were spiritually offset by Bad Santa, the meanest, vilest, out-Grinching-the-Grinchiest holiday movie ever. It seemed foolish to hope that something so wonderful would happen again, but it has. While Mike Nichols’ Closer is not a holiday movie, it’s the meanest, nastiest break-up-with-your-partner-after-seeing-it flick ever released at Christmastime. Although Closer doesn’t come within a mile of being as fine a movie as Bad Santa—partially because Nichols is the director—no matter. Closer is as cold and treacherous as an icy road. Any Julia Roberts fans expecting to see a pleasant evening of attractive people caught up in typical romantic complications will feel like they’ve hit a patch of ice and been sent flying off I-787 into the Hudson River.

(Special note to Roberts’ fans: The dialogue is often quite filthy. Deliciously filthy, however.)

The film opens with Alice (Natalie Portman) and Dan (Jude Law) locking eyes on a crowded London street. She swoons and he flirts. She walks toward him, straight into traffic, and is hit by a taxi. He takes her to hospital, and a romance is born. The filmmakers are nothing if not up front about what they feel is the main side effect of sexual attraction: pain.

The other couple in this battle of the sexes are Anna (Roberts), a professional photographer, and Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. If pain brings together Alice and Dan, then the Cupid who unites these two is an obscene monster. (Even though this nasty bit of business is only a comic harbinger of what’s to come.) The roundup: Alice loves Dan; Dan loves Alice, but also Anna; Anna loves Larry, but also Dan; and Larry loves Anna. Oh, and Alice and Larry may or may not have had sex, too.

These are moderately likable people who behave with appalling selfishness. Hearts and lives are broken with shocking ease and absence of conscience. The biggest mystery for the audience, in fact, is in trying to figure out which of the quartet is the most loathsome. What makes Closer compelling, however, is the naturalism at the heart of its essential emotional brutality. We’ve all known people like this; we’ve all been, to greater or lesser degrees, people like this.

Roberts, Owen and Law rise to the occasion quite nicely, and Portman, while still unsure of herself much of the time, is convincing during her character’s most important scenes. (She’s even a good stripper.)

Closer does, as noted, have its flaws. Patrick Marber adapted his own play, and while the dialogue and individual scenes are powerful and convincing, the overall story is much too slick and schematic. Nichols, as usual, doesn’t help matters either; he’s been directing films since 1966 and still has moments when he clearly doesn’t know where to put the camera.

There is, however, nothing in theaters right now remotely like Closer. It’s so out of the mainstream it’s scary. In a good way.

Brain Men

Directed by Shane Carruth

Can a cell phone ring in two different dimensions? That’s the smallest of the conundrums presented in Primer, a cautionary tale about causality that was inspired by the history of calculus. A popcorn movie it’s not, but Primer, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, is intensely, intricately intriguing, with a well-developed internal logic far beyond the range of the average experimental film.

Written, directed, and edited by Shane Carruth for $7,000, Primer has the look of a high-end home movie, which it basically is (it was shot in Super 16 mm). But the grainy, ultra-realistic visuals suit it perfectly. In a detached garage, Aaron (non-actor Carruth) and Abe (amateur actor David Sullivan) tinker obsessively with a new invention they refer to simply as “the device.” A diamagnetic superconductor of sorts, the device contains an error with bizarre implications, and the two engineers work around the clock to bring this quirk to its full, unknown potential. Having already shut out two colleagues to ensure the purity of their mission, Aaron and Abe discuss in minute, scientific detail the ramifications of the untried path they are blazing. Their mundane surroundings, the anonymity of their button-down shirts and ties, and the casual drone of their brainiac jargon all serve to prime the audience to accept the mind-boggling capability of the device, which Abe discovers after putting his watch in the box.

The device is moved to a storage unit as the engineers become wary of any outsiders sharing in their discovery. This mistrust is based on the belief that the potentialities would be too heavy for anyone to absorb right off the bat (“The permutations are endless,” says Abe, and Primer ingeniously proves him right). Eventually, their mistrust extends to each other and causes a dangerous fracture. Even more compelling than how Primer shifts from quantum physics to existential quandaries is the realization that the technical skill of the young engineers is without an ethical foundation.

The utter naturalism of the acting, and the occasionally inspired cinematography (Carruth does a lot with very little; ditto for his minimalist score) were the result of extensive storyboarding and long rehearsals. But because of the filmmaker’s familiarity with the material, he may not have realized that some of his storytelling shorthand is too short: The audience shouldn’t have to puzzle out which of the engineers is married, and which one has a girlfriend with a wealthy father, and whether that father was drawn into the discovery. At the same time, the voice-over, spoken in a flatlined monotone by a witness, is more annoying than clarifying. But these are small quibbles for a cerebral feat whose most interesting element isn’t so much what it’s about, but how it makes you think about what it’s about.

—Ann Morrow

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