By Kelly Baron. This is RETROGRADING, where a bunch of sad strangers are photographed beautifully.

THE FILM: Closer

THE TIME: 2004, back when Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman looked exactly the same (vampires?) and Jude Law still had a lust-worthy head of hair, not yet feeling the apparent need to wear hats on talk shows.

RECOLLECTIONS: While 2004 did see a weird streak of blockbuster sequels (Kill Bill Vol. 2, Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Meet the Fockers), it’s not inappropriate to think of the mid-Aughts as the Garden State years. That quiet little film helped establish – or at least reinforce – a generation’s already growing self-awareness, anxiety, preference for sincerity, and an increasing obsession with acoustic guitar-driven “indie music” (not to mention, the paragon of manic pixie females, Natalie Portman). The Aughts were the years of the maverick filmmakers, and Zach Braff was the voice of the almost depressed, super-white youth that thought understanding Closer was the mark of adulthood.

Despite the wide-eyed hype, Closer was a lukewarm success in the domestic market. (Not hard to imagine, considering the landscape of moneymakers that came out that year.) However, in spite of the wildly mixed reviews on the home front, the film absolutely killed abroad; internationally, Closer grossed more than $80 million, accounting for more than 70% of its worldwide gross. It’s not hard to imagine why, as the subdued tone of the film and murky, sexual subject matter aligns much more closely with European releases than the Smuckers-sweet format of most high-grossing films of Hollywood.

The film received a good number of award nominations and wins, several falling on the much-deserving Clive Owen. Both he and Portman were nominated for Academy Awards in the Supporting Actor categories, and both took home Golden Globes. (Owen also snagged a BAFTA.) But for a film that felt so of-the-moment in 2004, Closer seems to have been placed in the ranks of the more easily forgotten films of that year. It isn’t nearly as cringe-worthy to revisit as The Butterfly Effect, but it’s nowhere near as timeless as Sideways.

Image: Columbia Pictures

THE DIRECTOR: The legendary Mike Nichols always provided a healthy dose of literacy to the often predictable and illiterate world of Hollywood. His reputation began on Broadway with his Tony-award winning direction of Barefoot In The Park, and his film career followed suit with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. When Nichols followed that up with the highest-grossing film of 1967, The Graduate, Nichols won his first Oscar for Best Director and cemented his place as a bonafide auteur.

Praised by pretty much every actor he’d ever worked with, Nichols’s directing legacy is that of an actor’s darling. Much of his work – which also includes such hulking classics as Angels in America, Silkwood, and Regarding Henry – has that subdued quality of realism paired with just enough sensational moments to feel true to life. He was well known for getting the best performances out of actors, critics often citing the Burtons as the best example of this.

As is clear from many of these titles, Nichols had a knack for the messy truth of sexual complication. The exciting blend of his apparent interest in the subject, serious theater background, and long-held reputation for being an actor’s director should have combined to create the perfect storm in Closer. But, by 2004, Nichols had apparently lost a bit of his juice, as Closer came out more subdued than at all realistic, and certainly a hop, skip, and a long jump away from sensational.

Image: Columbia Pictures

THE CAST: Talk about a perfect storm. In 2004, the combination of the Hollywood stalwart Julia Roberts, the (ever) newly grown-up Natalie Portman, the heartthrob Jude Law, and the handsome and powerful Clive Owen (who acted in the original play’s debut) seemed primed for film magic.

Julia Roberts is always Julia Roberts, and not much else needs to be said about that. She’s stunningly gorgeous with a trademark restraint. Rather than a genuine actress, Roberts is a movie star. Her stillness and striking features make her perfect for film, but when faced with a real theatrical script, those qualities don’t translate into a great performance. What could have been a dynamic and flawed character in Closer became a wet blanket with Julia Roberts’s signature two-note performance.

What didn’t work for Julia Roberts’ character weirdly worked somewhat well for Jude Law. His sad little obituary-writing character is just such a weenie, and Law’s understated desperation, while boring, is believable. His manic love interest, Natalie Portman, had already established that she could do the weird waif thing in Garden State, and does it exactly as well again in Closer as Alice. The film gently teeters between presenting Alice as the voice of truth and of naïveté, perhaps suggesting that, in love, naïveté is the only truth. And if the dialogue didn’t take viewers immediately out of the moment with its rapid-fire false cleverness (Alice: “I don’t eat fish.” Dan: “Why not?” A: “They piss in the sea.” D: “So do children.” A: “Don’t eat children either.”), Alice may have seemed more the voice of reason in a circus of silliness.

Clive Owen, however, fills in some gaping holes. He lends a good dose of blood and heart to an otherwise limp ensemble performance. Whereas Anna is quiet and dishonest, Larry is bull-like in his cruel honesty. Where she (and everyone else) is passive, he is forceful. While the other characters will simply take what’s dealt, Owen actively wants. In a film that can feel like a really long music video for that song, that goddamned Damien Rice song, Owen brings some boorish human desire to the pristine and WASP-y table.

Image: Columbia Pictures

NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? It’s not a repressed nightmare, but when you watch Closer to recognize some shade of yourself as a human being dealing with true contradictions of the heart, you are nowhere to be found. All that’s in there is a lot of unrealistic dialogue spoken by pretty people.

RETROGRADE: 4.5 out of 10