In a brief and highly spotty survey I made of my cinema-going acquaintances, I found that, of those who saw the film, I'm one of the only ones who actively disliked it. Which surprised even me, since, as I've stated elsewhere, I generally tend to like these kinds of really dark relationship chamber pieces. But, after having read the play, I'm slowly starting to think that what people are responding to in the movie isn't so much the movie, per se, as it is the vestiges of Marber's original thematic intent that didn't get lost in the translation. There is an undeniable, magnetic truth in this story of four people bashing into each other's lives with violence and passion and longing and misplaced expectations, which will always be there, no matter how miscast or otherwise bungled the film turned out to be.
Leave it to a big, fucking, glossy-ass Hollywood movie (in the most pejorative sense of the word) to turn what is, all things considered, a sophisticated and archly British exploration of the influence of class and death on intimate relationships into a naughty little peek into the softcore sexual improprieties of whiny pin-ups and the constipated lunks who wish to bed them. Christ! Could Nichols have sucked any more of the play's strengths out of the movie in an effort to turn it into Carnal Knowledge, Redux?
(I hereby declare that I completely exonerate Marber himself from all culpability in the whole cinematic debacle, though, to be fair he did receive sole credit for writing the screenplay, and, in an issue of Entertainment Weekly that I must have thrown away recently, claims to be totally happy with his revamped ending. But, Hollywood is Hollywood, and screenwriters are screenwriters--regardless of their pedigrees--so I don't suppose that his opinions, his theories, or even his words were given much weight in the end.)
The number-one thing missing from the film is any attempt to contextualize the characters, their hang-ups, their attitudes, their actions, and their reactions in relation to their respective experiences of death. Sure, we get the one scene in Postman's Park where Jude Law mentions his mother's passing, and, yes, he is still employed as an obituary writer, but those minor details don't in any way inform the tenor of the film as a whole. Whereas, in the play, we don't just get those bits of information, but an avalanche of additional references to death--we get Alice fibbing to Larry about her parents dying in a car crash (though the audience doesn't necessarily know that it's a lie), Dan's father finally dying after a long stint in a nursing home, all that business about smoking or not smoking cigarettes (Larry says to Alice during Anna's photography exhibition in Act I, Scene 5, "Pleasure and self-destruction, the perfect poison"), Dan begging Anna in that same scene, "Don't marry him, marry me. Grow old with me . . . die with me," Larry sneering at Dan during their confrontation in his office in Act II, Scene 10, "She [Anna] tells me you wake in the night, crying for your dead mother. You mummy's boy," and, of course, the tragic revelation in the final scene that Alice herself has died. With all this death and dread seeping in around the edges of the play, it's not hard to read all the fucking and crying and other messy behavior as an attempt to beat back the grave. And, to read the title as not just a description of the sordid emotional entanglements these people find themselves in or the literal amount of space between bodies in a moment of physical intimacy (sex, darlings, I mean sex), but also as a measurement of the distance between the present moment and your inevitable last breath.
You got your Eros, you got your Thanatos, what else do you want? OK, you want class issues, you got 'em.
So, in addition to losing a gi-normous fucking range of emotional and dramatic expressiveness by casting Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts in the two female roles, you also lose any opportunity there might have been to allude to the clash of classes that would have been possible with an all-English quartet. In the version of the script I was reading, I got more poetry on this subject in the goddamn front matter and prefatory stage directions than I did over the course of the entire movie. The character listing reads, with diamond-like precision: "Alice, a girl from the town. Dan, a man from the suburbs. Larry, a man from the city. Anna, a woman from the country." I mean, wow, already, right there, you get a whole wash of color that describes the way these people aren't going to be speaking quite the same language, no matter how badly they want to connect with each other. But, when you drag the actresses' Americanness into the picture, there's too much extraneous (and more obvious) static introduced into the interpersonal dynamic to get a good read on the subtleties of social stratification (there's the broader cross-cultural clash to be considered, in addition to a more prominent "men versus women" antagonism--when, in Act I, Scene 2 of the play, Dan asks Anna why she's getting "sisterly" about Alice, the line in the movie is changed to something like, "what is this, patriotism?").
Though amusing on its own terms, in the movie, the scene between Larry and Anna where he criticizes the decor in their bathroom ("It's got attitude. The mirror says, 'Who the fuck are you?'") doesn't have any kind of gut-wrenching heft nor does it mean much of anything at all, really. When she asks him, "Are you experiencing bourgeois guilt?" and he counters "Working-class guilt," it sounds like the most pointless conversation a doctor could possibly have with Julia Roberts. However, in a more explicitly British context, with greater sensitivity to the varieties of regional accents and such, Larry, throughout the piece, comes off as a lower-class bloke who's done well for himself professionally, but will always be considered somewhat--what's the word they're using for it these days?--"chav". (Dan asks Anna at the gallery, "Talk to Doctor Larry about photography, do you? Is he a fan of Man Ray or Karsh? He'll bore you." Later, in Act II, Scene 8, when she tells him that Larry has a new private practice, Dan sallies, "How does he square that with his politics?" And there's of course Larry's recollection that he used to frequent Alice's strip joint twenty years ago when it used to be a punk club.) And, shall we tip-toe out on some sort of ledge here, and fish around for the symbolic meaning of the title in the way it relates to the characters trying to get "closer" to their own personal ideas of what The Good Life is?
At any rate, for me, it's only when all this other juicy stuff gets folded into the mix that the bile and the vulgar language and the sexual treachery start to cut as deeply as I'd like to believe Marber meant it to. Of course, Nichols thought he could just give us the dessert (Portman's tits, Roberts saying "fuck" a lot, Law's seductiveness, Owen's smoldering), without putting anything more substantial into the pot. Which, rather than achieving the effect of mainlining the distilled essence of every cruel moment from every failed relationship you've ever been in, just feels like a lightweight, formless, petulant attempt to turn you on with plastic masochism.
I'm throwing down the gauntlet. Someone in Chicago (Remy Bumppo, are you listening?) needs to stage a production of this play, right now. Think about it--it's a win/win situation. I don't know how much the Dramatists Play Service would charge for royalties at this point, but the "free" publicity garnered from the name-recognition of the movie alone almost seems to guarantee that butts would be in the seats every night of the duration of the run. So, financially, you're set, and then you also get a chance to redeem this fantastic material and present it in a more authentic light.
DAN: You think love is simple? You think the heart is like a diagram?
LARRY: Ever seen a human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood. GO FUCK YOURSELF . . . you . . . WRITER. You LIAR.