Take it from generations of storytellers: dollar for dollar, erotic deception is your biggest entertainment value. In "Closer," the Mike Nichols film just nominated for a Golden Globe, the deception begins with the title, which implies the existence of something solid in a human being to which others may come close (or closer). But there's no such solidity in these four pretty protagonists. The moment they get close, they fly apart.
This makes for some intriguing patterns, like the swirls traced by a magnet in a pile of metal shavings. The question is, are the forces at work in this film any more complicated than the positive and negative charges found in a magnet?
Plot summaries are a drag but in this case necessary: An American stripper named Alice (Natalie Portman) goes to London and jumps the bones of an English journalist named Dan (Jude Law). Dan later betrays Alice by jumping the bones of an American photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts). By jumping Dan's bones, Anna is betraying her husband, an English dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). In the end, Larry and Alice claim to have jumped each other's bones, but they might be lying.
So many bones, so little time. Oddly, "Closer" would have us believe that these four take several years to do what any self-respecting spouse-swappers could do in a single evening. But spouse-swapping is shallow and "Closer" is deep. Right?
There's one deep-seeming gimmick: instant messaging. Pretending to be Anna, Dan erotic-IMs with Larry as a practical joke, only to arrange a rendezvous that results in some serious bone-jumping. But Cyrano de Bergerac these people ain't. It is not clear why Larry would venture forth to meet the author of such lines as, "I want 2 cum on yr face." Cum to think of it, this isn't deep, or even erotic. Just trendy.
If there is a deep character, it would be Natalie, the stripper skilled at exerting power over men without letting them exert any over her. The film's most riveting scene occurs when Larry (heartsick over Anna) visits a strip joint and pays for a private ogle with Alice (heartsick over Dan). Larry wants to jump Alice's bones, but Alice cites the house rule, "Look but don't touch." And when Larry begs her to say her real name, she insists on using her fake nom de strip, Jane. Of course, at the end we learn that her name really is Jane.
This pattern is tidy: by attracting and repelling in equal measure, the gorgeous but vulnerable heroine achieves a moment of maximum control that enables her to speak the truth. Unfortunately, even this pattern dissolves at the end, when the happiness of Natalie and Dan reunited is destroyed by the question: DID Larry jump Alice's bones, after all?
We never learn the answer, a device doubtless intended to make us share these characters' morbid desire to know the truth even when it destroys happiness. This might pass for deep, if this film contained any happiness or emotional truth. But it doesn't. So the magnet in use here has only one charge.