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by Jenae Marks

"CLOSER"—THE PLAY VERSUS THE MOVIE

Were The Guts Of The Story Left On The Cutting Room Floor?

Omitted tragedy of Alice brings home the dark core of the story

 In 1999 I was lucky enough to see the play "Closer", written by British playwright Patrick Marber, on stage at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. A young actress I’d never seen before named Maggie Gylenhaal was adorable and devastating as Alice. All the characters were British and the play was brutal and hilarious and dissected sexual misdeeds gleefully. In suddenly turning tragic at the end the play suggested the deep meaninglessness of those misdeeds and the existential bankruptcy of the generation and social class the characters represented.

A month ago (December 2004) I saw the movie, directed by Mike Nichols, from a screen play written by Marber. When I first saw the trailers I was wary, even hostile. The "dreamy caramel" sound track (to paraphrase the song featured in the ad) was, in tone, nothing like the acerbic black sex comedy I remembered. Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman’s characters were Americans. I was not sanguine. Yet sitting in the multiplex I had the same experience I’d had in the theater—as soon as the computerized chat room sex scene took place, I was hooked, off and racing with the characters through their hyper self aware round-robin of sexual vanity and insidious revenge.

A few days later I wrote a Yahoo review entitled "Loved the Play, Play the Movie". My review was number 457. The other reviews were fiercely split between "Loved it"s and "Hated it"s. In writing the review I realized to what extend I had drawn on the memory of the play to fill in the essential features that made the play a substantial statement about contemporary life. I was never sure if the statement Patrick Marber was making was accurate, but it was weighty. It made me think that someone who was living a more post modern life than myself had seen things I haven’t and was giving me a moral update on some especially titillating and merciless aspects of the existential vacuum that careens through our culture.

I shared my impressions about the movie with others and discovered that those who liked the film felt they could appreciate it better knowing what events from the play had been omitted. Those who didn’t like it argued that while the play sounds riveting, the guts of the story had been lost in the translation to the screen. I came to agree.

Here then are my observations of the play and the film and how they compare and how much is lost due to all that was omitted from the story to create the film.

"Loved the Play, Love the Movie"

In 1999 I saw the play "Closer". Now that I have also seen the movie, I found myself wanting to explain to a friend the differences, which others may also find illuminating. When my friend suggested that Alice ("the stripper") is just as disloyal as the rest, because she lies about her identity, I shared with him this info from the play:

In the play, Alice's lies about her identity are less a personal deception of Dan (the novelist/obit writer) than part of a larger psychopathology of Alice's that is revealed at the end. First of all (don't read on if you haven't seen the film) in the play, Alice dies in the end, run over by a car in NYC. (This is ambiguously hinted at in the film: in the last frame, after she steps off the curb, the camera pans up to a red light.)

After "Alice" dies Dan sees her passport and realizes that she was really Jane Jones. Larry never learns her real name and therefore never discovers that in a bizarre, ironic role reversal she was being more honest while she was stripping and was answering truthfully his demand to know her name. (The irony is she was sharing with him a truth she hadn’t even shared with her lover, but doing it in a way that she knew would make him feel lied to, using confusion as a weapon so that even the truth feels like a lie and an insult.)

Though Larry never learns her real name, he is the one—not Dan—who discovers her fake name "Alice Aryes" in the cemetery, along with a life story that Alice had passed on to Dan as her own.

(I guess this suggests that the events in Dan’s novel about her are also lies, making her the more imaginative co-author of his book, which was, unbeknownst to him, true fiction.)

In the play Alice has told Dan and others a romantic/tragic story about an accident that killed her parents and left a huge scar on her thigh. Larry discovers that she lifted the accident story from the same tombstone from which she got her name. (In the play it is Alice, not Dan, who has been coming to that cemetery since she was a little girl; she is not a New Yorker but a Londoner. All four characters are Brits in the play.) Having slept with her and examined the scar, and being a dermatologist, Larry deduces that it is actually a self-inflicted wound (he notes that it was in the shape of a question mark) and that she was probably a self-mutilator at some point.

All this adds up to the sense, in the last two scenes, that there was a very troubled young woman in their midst, with a dark secret, and that they were all so busy screwing each other and screwing each other (over) that none of them ever really knew her—certainly known of them ever gained her trust. (In one of the last lines Larry says, "She made herself up".) There’s a sense that she was perhaps the most loyal among them, was hiding a lot of pain, and they all missed their chance to really see her—which is to say they have squandered their chance to ever see or hear each other or themselves with their narcissistic and cruel obsessions and machinations.

In the play Alice is kind of the tragic figure or sacrificial lamb. The youngest and arguably least guilty, she seems to pay the price for all their *****ing around, at least metaphorically.

(On stage that night at the Berkeley Rep, Alice was played by a very young Maggie Gylenhaal, who had not yet starred in any movies and who, with the bruise-like dark patches she naturally has under her eyes, emerged as a heart breaking figure. There was a wonderful, impassioned speech in the hotel room with Dan where she tells how she decided, "...to give my whole heart to this man who cuts the crusts off his bread". Later we learn that Dan only cut the crusts off that day because it fell off on one side. Letting her believe it was an adorable habit of his was the first lie.)

I think it really changes things to imply, as the movie does, that only Dan loses out in the end. In the play they all wind up empty handed, stunned by Alice’s death and by the realization that they never knew her. (And by implication one another, themselves, life; they are clueless people who’ve spent years in empty obsessions and betrayals.)

"Closer" was a wonderful play and I also found the movie wonderful. Mike Nichols has amazing taste and ability and Patrick Marber is an AMAZING writer. Despite all the betrayals, Marber also creates moments when the couples are alone that are surprisingly tender and strangely honest and self aware, especially when Dan announces his betrayal of Alice and holds her and comforts her while admitting that he is thoroughly selfish and deceitful.

An amazing script.

A LESS SANGUINE FRIEND POINTED OUT THE SHORT COMINGS OF THE STORY MINUS THE ALICE TRAGEDY AND I HAD TO AGREE:

"Guts Of The Play Were Removed To Fit The Screen"

Regarding "Closer" in hindsight I agree with you. When I first saw the trailer for the film version, I was almost hostile to it. The dreamy soundtrack you so dislike had a lot to do with that. I was relieved when I was able to lose myself in the film and experience it as a re-enactment of the play.

However, without the original ending, I think it's hard to find much of a point to the story.

As I wrote, the story in the play is of three people who end up empty handed or at least emotionally bankrupt. (After his furious efforts to get Anna back, Larry turns around and leaves her for a younger woman (a nurse in his office I seem to recall) as we learn from the dialogue of the last scene in which Anna and Larry meet as ex's and discuss the death of Alice.

They are faced with the death of this person they were each intimately involved with but failed to know. Not that Alice was the saint of the group (though I think she is the most loyal of the characters), but her death, especially given that she is younger and of a lower class, highlights their obliviousness to her vulnerability, and their own, and to all matters of substance in their neurotic pursuit of the grass that's always greener.

I think it's interesting you listed honesty and intimacy as dichotomies in the story. I agree. I think Marber is writing about people who are very self-aware but have no structure into which to pour that self-awareness. They have no values or principles. So their self awareness becomes monstrous: Alice: "Why are you doing this?!?" Dan: "Because I'm selfish, I think I'll be happier with her." Their dialogue is a kind of perversion of intimacy—a detailed accounting of feelings and motives but absolutely no basis for trust. This may be a comment on the effects of psychoanalysis and it's descendents on our culture—we become nihilists who know ourselves really well, but to no avail.

Regarding the near sadistic callowness you see in Dan, I think that was not a sign of poor direction but an original feature of the play. I don't think that the characters, especially Dan, ever latch on to a value more meaningful than, "Maybe there's somebody better". It's hard to know what motivates Dan to seduce Anna, or why she succumbs to his advances. How they could both deceive their partners for over a year. I think we are meant to understand that the characters' actions are shallow, neurotic, self-defeating, obsessive and senseless. Like hamsters on a wheel. I left the play feeling I had been shown a very dark glimpse of post-modern (that word still meant something then) personalities too thin to have meaningful motivations.

Again I have to say that Alice does seem to emerge as paradoxically more mature in that respect—she has a very concrete guiding principle—to love Dan for the rest of her life. Obviously her trust is misplaced, but at least she has made a commitment to something and never violates that commitment. (I don't consider her night with Larry a violation, since Dan had deceived her and traded her for another.) I think if you analyze the events of the story, you'll find that her only mis-deed is deceiving everyone about her identity, which is sort of a victimless crime born of her trauma. She doesn't commit adultery and lie like Dan and Anna or willfully destroy other people's relationships for the sake of revenge, as Larry does. I think this is because she is working class, so the playwright allows her to represent a less fully jaded sensibility.

(In the film Larry is portrayed, as Anthony Lane of the New Yorker has pointed out, as a working class boy who got him MD and joined the upper classes. I don’t think this was the case in the play. In any event Clive Owen gives such a muscular and perversely charismatic performance that he and Portman are, as Lane says, the emotional center of the story in the film.)

Dan's behavior in the play did come off as somewhat sadistic. The whole play felt sadistic. I was willing to accept that because the writing persuaded me that there probably are people like that, so I felt it was saying something worthwhile in a very artful way. (And of course we have all been a little like that at some time in our lives.)

CONTINUING AN ON-GOING CONVERSATION WITH MY FRIEND ABOUT THE RECOVERY MOVEMENT, I LOOKED BRIEFLY AT THE EVENTS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE CLARIFYING LENS OF 12-STEP CONCEPTS:

In 12-step terms one might say that Dan, and maybe Anna, were sex-and-love addicts, acting out an increasingly joyless compulsion to conquer, seduce, be seduced...ad nauseum. People in program sometimes say that G-O-D stands for "good orderly direction", which none of the characters have. They have no steps, no principles, no values, no nothing to give them direction. They become slaves of their own egos and narcissistic emptiness, which no amount of "selfish" behavior ever satisfies. Alice would be seen (FROM A 12-STEP PERSPECTIVE) as having mistakenly set up Dan as her higher power, staying with him when she knew she couldn't trust him, failing to take care of herself.

My sense is that the two victims of adultery, Larry and Alice, are the more human pair, yet Larry shows his inhumanity in his willingness to insidiously destroy Alice’s desired happiness with Dan. We know from his success at breaking Dan and Anna up that he is well aware of what it will mean to Jude Law’s Dan to learn that Larry has been inside Alice. From the moment he leaks that information it is a time bomb waiting to destroy whatever chances of happiness Alice might have with Dan. Obviously Alice did eventually give in to Larry’s entreaties to let him pick her up when she gets off work at the strip club. (It must have been quite a date after that night of ruthless and muscular interchanging cat and mouse while she was stripper and he client.)

In the play when Dan insists on knowing why she slept with Larry, Maggie Gylenhaal’s Alice, with exasperated and defeated candor blurts out, "Because I pitied him, because I desired him". I was left feeling that pity or at least sympathy had been part of the equation. In any case she shared her body with him for a night ("all night long") and in breaking the old rule "never kiss and tell" Larry betrays her to devastating effect, all because, as he himself says—exercising his monstrous self-awareness—he’s not big enough to get over his need to hurt—and best—Dan. The lady did him a good turn and this is how he repays her.

No need to apologize for not loving the movie. I think it was flawed and that even the play had its sort of nihilistic limitations. It was damned exciting though. I think that the writing excels more on a micro level than on a macro level. Sadly the movie obliterated the larger point, so that only the amazingly sharp, stylized dialogue and the ruthless and ever-changing scenarios are left to attest to the playwright's talent.

The film gives us a glimpse into lives lived with no emotional anchor or compass. Yet by telling us that Larry and Anna will now settle into domestic intimacy, and Alice will live happily in New York (then why the red traffic light? Is this a sop to viewers of the play who expect her to be killed, or a hint that she is going to have another near miss and fall in love with another cad? What would be the point of that?) the film suggests that only Dan is left bereft. Why? What is the point, the meaning, of that story? Hard to say. In the final scenes of the play, you knew the point: Lovelessly making love and heedlessly seeking revenge are soulless pursuits and leave people stranded. We were faced at the end with three characters who don’t know themselves and a martyr ghost they never understood. It was a little sudden and awkward, but it made the play about something important. Guilt is not always equal and there was something very touching in the way that the youngest and least powerful character emerged as the only one who perhaps had something real on her mind—real love for Dan, real pain, and real secrets she never got close enough to anyone to share.

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