"Closer": Addicted to Love
At the age of 23, Natalie Portman has already made a dozen movies. She was memorable in her first one ("The Professional," in 1994); now she's well on her way to being unforgettable. In Zach Braff's "Garden State," released earlier this year, she brought a sweet zing of exhilaration to every scene in which she appeared. Now, in "Closer," she extends her range into areas of effortless sensuality and imperfectly armored vulnerability that are unlike anything she's done before. It's a revelatory performance.
"Closer," adapted by Patrick Marber from his celebrated 1997 play, is the story of four people who fall in and out and in and out of love, but just keep screwing it up. They don't seem really to love one another; it's the falling that brings them alive, the rush of sudden infatuation. As soon as their emotions begin to stabilize, they start getting antsy. The story is an examination of the ways in which love can be thrown away for no particularly good reason — extinguished by lies, or by a kind of "honesty" that's actually a form of heartless torture. You learn things about the characters as the story proceeds, but you don't see them grow. They keep moving — from one to another, and then back again — but you see that they're not going anywhere. It's that kind of movie, just so you know.
Walking down a crowded London street one day, Dan (Jude Law) finds his eyes drawn to a vaguely punkish-looking young woman (Portman) who's coming his way. She's eyeing him, too, but before they can meet in some cute urban scenario, she gets knocked over by a taxi at an intersection and lies dazed in the street. Dan rushes to her side, and when she gets her bearings, she looks up at him and says, "Hello, stranger." It's an early irony: Intimacy and cohabitation lie ahead, but in a key way, strangers is what they'll remain.
Dan is a writer — well, he has to be honest: He's an obituary writer for a city paper. The girl says her name is Alice, and she's "a waif," a New Yorker who's come to London in order to put a bad relationship behind her. She sometimes works as a stripper. The story advances in subtle and unexpected increments of time. When next we see Dan, it's a few years later, and he's having his picture taken for the jacket of a book that Alice has inspired him to write. The photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts), is coolly professional ("Don't raise your eyebrows," she says, "it makes you look smug"), and Dan quickly finds himself falling for her, just like that. Anna is divorced. She mentions that she makes daily visits to the London Aquarium. They begin kissing. Then she asks him if he has a girlfriend. Yes, he does. And — he has to be honest — "she's completely unleavable." A lie, of course. Disgusted, Anna says, "Why are you wasting her time?"
That night, Dan logs onto an Internet sex-chat room in search of a sucker. He finds one with the not-too-subtle cyber-handle "Doc 9." Dan — using the name "Anna" — draws Doc into a back-and-forth that revolves largely around phrases like "my wet knickers." Doc asks for a meeting. "Anna" suggests the London Aquarium the following afternoon. Doc — who really is a doctor, an abrasively randy dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen) — makes the date, and of course the actual Anna is there. He approaches her, and after a brief flurry of unpleasantness, she realizes that Dan has engineered this embarrassing interlude. She and Larry start talking.
That's the set-up. Time continues to pass in spurts and judders. Anna and Larry get married, but Anna soon starts to cheat on him — with Dan. Then, at one of Anna's photo exhibitions, Larry lays eyes on Alice, who's in attendance with Dan. Naturally, Larry falls, instantly. "She has the moronic beauty of youth," he says later. Back at their apartment, Dan confesses to Alice that he's been cheating on her for the past year. Alice is angry, hurt, angry again. Larry, returning from a business trip, tells Anna that he "slept with a whore" while he was in New York. "I couldn't lie to you," he says smoothly, "because I love you." To which Anna replies that she's been sleeping with Dan all along. Things don't get any better for any of them, but then you're not expecting them to.
There are set-piece scenes in this movie — Larry furiously demanding an inventory of all the places Anna and Dan have made love in their flat, and the ways in which they've done so; and Larry's feral encounter with Alice in the lap-dance room of a strip club to which he's tracked her down — that are almost as laceratingly foul as some of the acrid exchanges in the 1966 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," another sex-war movie directed by Mike Nichols. In the end, everyone's been betrayed, but probably learned nothing. Clive Owen has a brawny, threatening presence that's perfect for his borderline-loathsome character. ("Have you ever seen a human heart?" Dr. Larry asks. "It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.") And Jude Law is moving, in the end, as a man who's way over his head in this roundelay of humiliation. Julia Roberts, too — her factory-installed star power dimmed down about as far as it'll go — navigates some brutal verbal exchanges with deft emotional precision. But it's Natalie Portman, with her big, eager eyes and knowing, seductive smile, who lifts the movie up to another level, illuminating the dismally constricted possibilities within which these four characters operate, and the romantic inevitabilities they grimly await. "I'm waiting for you," Alice says to Dan, casually. "What?" he asks. "To leave me."
"The Life & Death of Peter Sellers": Cold Case
Peter Sellers, the brilliant English comic actor who died in 1980, was a man of many vivid personalities, none of them his own. Two of the characters that teemed within his crowded head have become classics of comic invention. The first, introduced in 1964, and elaborated over the course of five "Pink Panther" movies, was Inspector Jacques Clouseau, the implacably dimwitted French police detective. Bumbling about in his oversize trench coat and his ridiculous little mustache, mystifying one and all with his glutinous mispronunciations ("bimp" for "bump," "mueth" for "moth"), Clouseau was the blithering incarnation of officious bureaucratic idiocy. (Steve Martin is about to exhume this beloved character in a movie called "The Birth of the Pink Panther." Good luck.) Sellers' second iconic creation, that same year, was the wire-haired, wheelchair-bound title eminence in Stanley Kubrick's anti-war broadside, "Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)." Strangelove, with his icy Teutonic purr, punctuated by sudden Nazi salutes from his out-of-control prosthetic arm, became an unforgettable emblem of the doomsday political absurdity of the Cold War period.
A sensational new HBO movie, "The Life & Death of Peter Sellers," based on a caustic 1995 biography by Roger Lewis, portrays the comic genius behind these famous masks as an empty vessel — a soulless, nasty little man with no regard for the needs or feelings of anyone around him, even his wives and children. And with the great Geoffrey Rush giving yet another performance-of-a-lifetime as Sellers, the movie becomes something more than just a warts-and-all biopic. It's a sumptuous fantasy, a glittering evocation of the pop movie culture of the 1960s and '70s in which Sellers attained worldwide fame — a life of Peter Sellers in the form of a Peter Sellers movie, with Rush playing, as Sellers himself sometimes did, many parts.
The film opens in the early 1950s, when Sellers was one of the stars of a phenomenally popular BBC radio program called "The Goon Show." He longs to break into movies, but with his homely face and lumpy physique, he is told by a casting agent to stick with radio. He brazens his way into the business nevertheless, and by the end of the decade finds himself starring in a movie opposite the Italian sex goddess Sophia Loren (Sonia Aquino). Both starstruck and smitten, he proclaims his love to the married Loren (who's appalled) and then marches home to tell his wife, Anne (Emily Watson), and their two small children that he's leaving them to be with the beautiful actress. His little daughter asks if he doesn't love them anymore. Not the case at all, says Sellers: "I just love Sophia Loren more."
Thus is he launched into the orbit of international jet-set celebrity. We see him inventing the Clouseau character on a flight to Switzerland to start work on "The Pink Panther." ("I demand to speak to ze person in charge," he bleats. "I am the person in charge," says an irritated stewardess. "Ah — zen I demand to speak to you!") In a fantasy sequence, we see him on an erotic shopping spree in a showroom stocked with all the latest models of women. We see him snorting up fat lines of cocaine in the babe-filled backseat of a stretch limo. Later, we see him having a heart attack. He lavishly romances the Swedish starlet Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron), who'll soon become his second wife. But later on, when he has to interrupt his busy schedule to drive her to a hospital to give birth to their child, he says, "Make it quick, we start filming in a week," and walks away. (Later yet, we see him whacking her in the face during an infantile argument.)
Throughout all of this, we see Geoffrey Rush everywhere. At the end of one scene, Emily Watson turns to the camera to speak — and we're confronted with Rush's face beneath her blonde hairdo. When Sellers' mother, Peg (Miriam Margolyes), calls to tell her son she's dying, and he tells her he's filming and creepily hangs up on her, we listen as she says, "Real stars don't have time for tears," and we watch as she climbs into a coffin to begin being dead, and we realize, with a small shiver, that, yes, it's actually Rush again. "Eliminate the personal element, and you can get so much more done," he says, during a brief morph into the form of Stanley Kubrick. "This was a realization that Peter Sellers never had to face, because there was no person there to begin with."
Indeed, as Sellers tells an interviewer, "I don't really have any personality of my own. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed." Appropriately, then, the role he pursued most avidly was that of a simple-minded character named Chance, in the 1979 movie "Being There." Chance is a complete cipher, a man without qualities, an emotional zero whose only experience of life has been derived from watching TV. Sellers' extraordinary performance in the movie won him an Academy Award nomination (although not an Oscar). The man was an artist, no arguing that. He just wasn't much of a man.
"The Life & Death of Peter Sellers" is so awash in technique — in fantasy flourishes and film-within-film effects — that the director, Stephen Hopkins, nearly capsizes the picture at some points. His narrative ambition teeters on the edge of pretense. But he is ambitious, at least. And it's hard to imagine how Sellers' story could have been better served by a more straightforward treatment — or how a more traditional depiction could possibly have contained the off-the-rails performance of Geoffrey Rush, whose command of Sellers' comic personae is really uncanny. The man is an international treasure, and he's all the reason that's required to see this remarkable movie. It premieres on HBO Sunday night at 9 p.m. Be there.
"House of Flying Daggers": Heroic
Like most movies made by the extravagantly gifted Chinese director Zhang Yimou, "House of Flying Daggers" is really something to look at — not least because of the presence of the exquisite (and very busy) actress Zhang Ziyi, who was also featured in his extraordinary 2002 film, "Hero," which finally got a U.S. theatrical release last summer courtesy of martial-arts impresario Quentin Tarantino. In "Daggers," there's a pretty spectacular fight scene in which Zhang, as a blind geisha named Mei, wearing a robe whose billowing sleeves must be 10 feet long, fends off a sword attack with customary balletic aplomb, while water drums pound and a line of fellow geishas pluck dolefully on their lutes. There's also an airborne battle in a towering bamboo forest that way outdoes the tree-to-tree fight sequence in the 2000 "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (in which Zhang Ziyi also, inevitably, appeared). There are several slam-bang moments, in fact, and the whole film is gorgeously designed. Like "Hero," it is also a love story, this time between Zhang, who's secretly a soldier in the House of Flying Daggers — a rebel army in revolt against the forces of a corrupt emperor — and Jin, a soldier in the emperor's army. There's a lot of their love story, actually, and after a while, you may find your attention starting to flag.
This is not to say that "House of Flying Daggers" isn't worth your while — not at all. However, if you happen not to have seen "Hero" yet, I strongly suggest that you do — immediately, if possible. "Hero" is the most breathtakingly beautiful epic I've seen this year, and it just came out on DVD this week. Your duty, I think, is clear. I leave you to it.