With Patrick Marber adapting his own stage play, Closer is the story of four contemporary Londoners whose lives intertwine emotionally and sexually. Alice Ayres (Natalie Portman) is a 24-year-old American in flight to England from a failed love affair. Shortly after arriving, she meets, literally by accident, Dan Wolf (Jude Law), a newspaper obituary writer. Dan and Alice hook up immediately, and while together for three years Dan writes a novel based on Alice's life, in which, we gather, he portrays Alice as a person of too little substance. Dan's publisher sends him to a prominent portrait photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts) for his book-jacket photo. He's instantly smitten and proposes to dump Alice for her. Anna doesn't accept and soon begins an affair that ends in her marriage to a dermatologist named Larry (Clive Owen). But Anna hasn't gotten Dan out of her mind, and pretty soon she's leaving Larry for Dan who is elsewhere breaking Alice's heart. The two break-up scenes in different parts of the city are inter-cut, and they are just about as painful as storytelling gets.
The more we get to know most of these characters, the less we like them, and the movie requires four focused and brave performances to drive home the film's message about how often untamed desire is renamed "love" and wielded like a machete to hack away the arms of those who cling to you. Dan and Larry and Anna are people who pride themselves on being truthful. Only they tell the truth -- "I have been unfaithful"; "I love somebody else" -- not to free but to wound. Like the character Jude Law played in Alfie, Dan wants to be well thought of even while he inflicts pain. Larry, in contrast, sees love as war and himself as a battle tank. No ploy of cruel psychological gamesmanship is beneath him. If Anna wants to leave him, he will endeavor to humiliate her, berate her, pathetically beseech her or deviously trap her, whichever seems likeliest to succeed at any given moment.
In the end, Dan is weak and Larry is scary. But at least the men exhibit passion, however inevitably selfish. Anna is as cold-blooded as the fish she likes to study in the city's aquarium. We ultimately conclude that she consistently desires whatever it is she doesn't currently have. When she's with Larry, she wants to be with Dan, and vice versa. The film concludes with a shot of her unsleeping face staring out into the darkness of dissatisfaction while her lover slumbers at her side.
Marber has layered his story with symbolism. Dan is a wolf whose work is to write about the dead. Anna has built her artistic reputation by photographing people she doesn't know. Larry is an expert on the human exterior. In significant contrast to these gelid professionals, Alice works as a lap dancer after Dan leaves her. But unlike these more accomplished people, who justify acquiring whatever they want at any moment, Alice seems earnest in her desire for commitment. She's the one of the foursome who is never unfaithful and who never seeks to hurt. But whatever her lack of professional status, Alice is a complicated woman we never entirely get to know. Her last name, one she has chosen for herself, would imply that she is not entirely of this earth, not grounded (in selfishness) the way the others are. The others tell brutal truths. Alice teasingly says, "Lying is the most fun a girl can have with her clothes on."
Aside from the purely physical, we cannot see why any of these characters are attracted to one another, but Alice at least believes in an idea of love that is inseparable from the requirement of fidelity. And it is she who shatters Dan's nasty argument that he is innocent of betrayal because he fell in love with Anna. But he didn't have to, Alice counters. In every instance of attraction, she maintains, there comes a moment when one chooses to move forward or turn away. And that moment comes before real love blooms. What Alice doesn't say, because she can't bear it, is that if Dan had ever really loved her, he would have resisted his attraction to Anna. And that's the bottom thematic line in this film: It's full of characters who speak volumes about love but have never experienced it and know not a thing about it.