Closer is a movie set in Britain with a largely American cast of big names and near-big names including Julia Roberts. Based on a play, it follows four main characters—two men and two women—through a seemingly endless series of emotional ups and downs, betrayals, break-ups, reconciliations, and constantly shifting couplings.

Actually the first scene or two makes it feel like it’s going to be a romantic comedy, or at least a romantic movie in some positive sense. It is anything but. What most stands out to me about Closer is how genuinely unlikable all four of these people are. (Another thing that stands out to me is how goofy it sounds when Americans speak British—“Do you fancy her?” “Could I use your loo?” I’m not saying it’s unrealistic, because I suppose when Americans live in England for an extended time it’s to be expected they’d adopt the colloquialisms and such of the natives, but it grates on the ear.)

All the cheating and lying and hurting and general bad faith of these people just makes the whole movie creepy. I mean, you obviously can’t say that a movie is good or bad based on how good or bad the people in it are—there can be very well-done and entertaining movies about the Mafia or Republicans or whomever—but the kind of petty misbehavior of these people make it unpleasant to spend this time with them.

The sex certainly feels disturbing and emotionally unhealthy. It’s seemingly always part of some power struggle, or some way of getting revenge against some third party or whatever. It’s the opposite of erotic. (To me, that is. I know to a lot of people these displays of competitive machismo and complex assertions of dominance and such make those who engage in them all the more sexually appealing and intriguing.)

The women are physically attractive I suppose—Natalie Portman and the aforementioned Julia Roberts—but nowhere near enough to overcome what a buzzkill they are as human beings. If I got involved with a woman like either of these, once I became aware of the kind of deceit and head games she engages in routinely I’d have zero remaining sexual desire for her. (The two men, by the way, are as bad or worse.)

It’s not that any of the four are conventionally evil—like that one of them turns out to be a serial killer or a Nazi or something—but, again, it’s the petty, self-centered, emotionally unevolved way they behave in relationships that’s such a turn-off.

Closer received mostly favorable reviews. It has been praised for being so uncompromisingly realistic in its portrayal of complicated adult relationships.

Is it really all that realistic though? I’m not going to say there are no people in the world like these—who constantly use each other, and have aggressive ugly sex and then give emotional speeches about it in soap opera-like confrontations—but I (thankfully) rarely come across them.

This is one of those movies that makes me wonder if I have lived a very sheltered life, and that maybe this is indeed how people routinely interact and have sex.

Maybe what feels off about this is that my observation has been that when people behave in an amoral, exploitative way and hurt others with no evidence of it giving them a troubled conscience, it’s far more often their public self or work self rather than their private self that does this. That is, soldiers drop bombs on strangers, salesmen lie to get people to act contrary to their self-interest, people who work in corporate media lie and spin things to benefit their paymasters, etc., but that’s when they’re “on duty.” Those same people are typically capable of having at least mediocre human relationships with others when they’re not fulfilling some social or occupational role but can go back to just being individuals.

But these folks in Closer behave especially abominably in their personal relationships.

Periodically these characters lose themselves in Dostoyevskian emotionalism and despair, but that rarely evoked much empathy in me. Why? Not necessarily because I think they might be being insincere and manipulative, nor because I dislike them and I somehow want people I dislike to suffer. I’m actually pretty good about refraining from wishing ill on people regardless of what I think of them.

I think it’s because, like I say, these people are creepy and shallow in a way that makes them feel unfamiliar—not necessarily worse than anyone else, just unpleasant in a different way. I think it’s easier to identify with and feel some connection with people who resemble you or resemble the kind of people you’re used to being around.

It’s not that I consistently have trouble connecting with flawed protagonists in movies and books. (By the way, I didn’t intend for pretty much this whole piece to be about how unlikable I found these four main characters, but that’s just where my mind went after I watched Closer.) If anything I tend to identify too easily with characters the better I get to know them, maybe because their flaws seem more explainable and hence excusable. But these four just never showed the kind of human side that could draw me in that even most villains have.

Objectively you could probably argue otherwise, that they do and say just as many things that are evidence of this human side as “bad guys” in other movies that I feel more empathy toward do, so I suspect their rubbing me the wrong way is really more of an intangible, subjective thing about me.

And precisely because my reaction was so subjective, I don’t know that I’d steer people away from Closer. It’s not a poorly-made movie, and I could see some viewers finding it quite fascinating in its treatment of damaged people and their damaged relationships.


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