Just as I was thanking my lucky stars that my cinematic year would come to an end without an offering from Neil LaBute, along comes Closer. LaButehead is nowhere near it, but the picture's thuggish spirit and amoral chic spring unmistakably from the same kind of (in)sensibility that's spawned In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and The Shape of Things. The main offender here is Mike Nichols, an old-school misogynist who, following up on his botched Angels in America cable miniseries, could hardly have asked for a more fitting big-screen vehicle. An adaptation of Patrick Marber's acclaimed 1997 British play, the film's object of contemplation is not the brutality of modern relationships or even the infinite forms of emotional fumbling, but a bunch of sleek, high-priced actors vogueing as scorpions for an unfeeling camera -- cultivated bourgeois nastiness dolled up as piercing contemporary insight.
"Hello, stranger." Hardly the first thing an accident victim would coo, but the movie needs its Meet-Cute, and finds it as a screeching car brings together Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) at a London crosswalk. He writes obituaries, she's a stripper (and self-described "waif") touring from New York and, as befits the film's schematized architecture, they're an item within five minutes. Ellipsis. Dan, whose novel is about to be published, meets divorced photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) while posing for the book-jacket photo, and decides to make her mainly because she so coolly resists him. Shot down, he sets a chatroom lecher, Larry (Clive Own), on her, but the cyberspace prank of course backfires -- Larry and Anna hook up until he finds out of her affair with Dan. Then it's break-up and a disgruntled run into the strip club, where he bumps into, you guessed it, Alice. Couples swap, then back for the sour denouement.
A loves B loves C loves D. What Max Ophüls, an artist as sensitive to love's ecstasies as to its wreckage, would have done with this quartet! Unhappily, it's Nichols at the wheel, embellishing Marber's pseudo-profound cruelty with an emotional avarice that goes back to the spurious truth-telling of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the pandering, gimmicky cuteness of The Graduate. Carnal Knowledge, Nichols' nearest precursor to Closer, dealt with similarly corrosive sexual gladiatoring, and the filmmaker's comical-cum-surgical eye, always smugly superior to his characters, has scarcely warmed up in the three decades since. Nichols' theatrical agility and surface elegance in steering his predatory puppets through ateliers, art exhibitions, and ice rink-sized apartments only heighten the claustrophobic falseness of the story and the mechanical joylessness of its cynicism. Meant to lacerate, Closer degrades rather than liberates.
As usual in these fuck-and-switch games, there's the drive to telescope the modern world into these four. These four are the world? Men poison each other's minds with suspicion, while women endure, manipulate and sting. What else is new? Marber's dialogue is the tidily "written" kind (Owen at one point describes a heart as "a fist dipped in blood"), with raunchiness crisply enunciated but leeched off the slightest hint of pleasure. The actors, Nichols' usual strength, soldier on: Law shades in incisive self-infatuation, Owen floods smarm with force, Portman labors to suggest hidden coquettish depths, and Roberts is glumly worn, which will not doubt be seen as a sign of hitherto unexplored "maturity." As if to underscore his myopia, Nichols sprinkles his meretricious Punch 'n' Judy Show with excerpts from Così fan tutte -- to dig for links between the sublime emotional mobility of Mozart's opera and Closer's willful reduction of human relationships is to look for Chaplin in a Carrot Top skit just because the Limelight theme plays on the soundtrack.
From false class to false darkness -- if Closer is ersatz LaBute, The Machinist is wannabe David Fincher mindfuck. Strenuously grim, Brad Anderson's monochromatic (and monotonous) freak show flaunts its raison d'etre front and center: Christian Bale, who, for the title role, did the opposite of De Niro's Raging Bull bloat job and wasted away to a dangerously gaunt profile. (Jean-Luc Godard famously criticized Schindler's List by saying that the Holocaust cannot be filmed because you can't starve actors to death, and Bale, ribcage showing and limbs ready to snap, seems to be trying to prove him wrong.) As a goateed insomniac trudging away in a dankly industrial landscape, he ping-pongs between the feminine polar opposites of Jennifer Jason Leigh's dingy whore and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón's pure waitress, plays hangman with a mysterious Post-It note, and frequents such cheery amusement park rides as "Route 666."
Who is the grinning chrome dome (John Sharian) who keeps popping up to creep Bale out? He might have something to do with the main character's murky past, though The Machinist is too busy piling on facile shocks to care. Machines devour limbs and refrigerators bleed, but it's all gimmickry -- there's no emotional payoff behind Anderson's grotesqueries, or, God forbid, class awareness to its industrial squalor. Roman Polanski's The Tenant and David Cronenberg's Spider are two examples of artistically valid explorations of twisted subjectivity, though those filmmakers had more in mind than flattering the hipsters. The picture's insistence on sulfurically drained color will strike some geeks as "style," but I prefer Michael Powell's experiments with (rather than without) color in Peeping Tom, whose female lead, Anna Massey, shows up here as Bale's landlady. (Hey, these movie-buff games keep me from going crazy during sludge like The Machinist.)