Is Western art in a state of decadent decline, purveying moral obtuseness where it once spread courageous enlightenment? That charge has been heard more and more in recent years, and from some surprisingly different sources. Much of the Muslim world now sees Western entertainment as an assault weapon aimed at conquering other cultures by overthrowing their traditional value systems. The fantasies of sadism, domination and sexual humiliation photographed by American soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were, according to this reading, proof that America’s own traditional values have been undermined by the essentially pornographic mindset of our increasingly militaristic imperium. Given that American conservatives see and seek little common cause with their Muslim counterparts, it’s ironic that a strikingly similar concern with traditional morality and its perceived erosion by the media apparently played such a large role in the recent election. According to polls, many Americans are bothered by the seaminess that characterizes much corporate-produced entertainment currently, and such worries prompted votes for the party that has taken the more conservative line in what for several years now have been called the “culture wars.”

There are, of course, several layers of absurdity to this political reaction, beginning with the fact, as detailed by other studies, that many of the people who profess worry about smutty television are among its avid consumers (nothing better exemplifies this contradiction than the Fox network, which peddles conservatism on its “news” while pushing the sleaze envelope on its entertainment shows). Yet it seems to me that the basic concerns voiced here deserve serious consideration, if only to rescue us from a polarized national discourse in which one side sees immorality in Janet Jackson’s bared breast and none in the deaths of innocent Iraqi women and children, while the other takes umbrage at a misguided foreign policy but shrugs off artistic decay and a predatory, profits-above-all entertainment oligopoly as the price of “freedom.”

Regarding artistic decay, the object lesson I have in mind at the moment is Mike Nichols’ Closer, which is not only one of the year’s worst movies but awful in a particular, symptomatic way: Rather than simply peddling mindless titillation in the manner of primetime, it imagines it is doing something serious and purposeful, not unlike previous Nichols movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Carnal Knowledge. The fact that it is utterly deluded in this belief is why, I submit, the film should prove less alarming to cultural conservatives, who’re likely to find it merely snooty and tedious, than to more progressive types, whose ideals are the ones it actually betrays.

Set in contemporary London, Closer follows two couples–English males, American females–over a period of several years. Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman) “meet cute” in the first scene. They’re both sashaying down the street, eyeing each other in prurient fashion, when she makes the typical American mistake of looking the wrong way at a crosswalk, and gets hit by a taxi. He takes her to the hospital and makes his interest known there. Though Dan admits he’s in a relationship, he’s evidently ready to ditch his girlfriend for this new Yank bird.

A couple of years later, Dan is an about-to-be-published author–his unsuccessful novel is, of course, about “love and sex”–having his jacket photo taken by a comely photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts). The more her shutter clicks, the hotter their flirtation grows. Though he’s been in a relationship with Alice since we last saw him, Dan is again ready to overthrow a settled romance for fresh meat. But that doesn’t happen. Attracted but wary, and sympathetic toward Alice, Anna backs off.

The next time we see Dan, he’s in an Internet chat room pretending to be Anna as he carries on a very dirty exchange of sexual fantasies with Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist. (After seeing Closer I happened to talk to a well-known director who’s had run-ins with the MPAA ratings board and who opined that the language in this chat room scene would’ve brought the film an NC-17 rating had it issued from a feisty indie director and distributor rather than Nichols and Columbia Pictures.) As Anna, Dan induces Larry to visit the London Aquarium in hopes of a sexual rendezvous. And there a funny thing happens: Larry meets Anna and begins talking to her, thinking she’s the one from the chat room. Though she’s not, she’s attracted anyway–thus begins their romance.

Talk about “meet cute.” But before leaving this early juncture of the story, let me not fail to note how it typifies Closer in being entirely phony and contrived. Why does Dan swap heated sexual fantasies with other men over the Internet? Is he really gay, or is this merely a way of taking vengeance on Anna? Actually, neither possibility connects with anything else we learn about him in the rest of the movie, which reveals his Internet adventure for what it is: bad screenwriting, a cheap effect concocted without regard for dramatic sense. And what about Anna just happening to be at the aquarium when Larry visits, and Larry just happening to speak to her rather than to any other woman, and her just happening to like his effrontery rather than telling him to shove off?

In some movies, this overload of hootably coincidental happenstance would instantly undercut any pretense of seriousness, but we’ve apparently reached the point where directors, actors, critics and audiences too are not supposed to mind such things as long as the movie has an arty patina and deals with “adult” subjects like sexual attraction and infidelity. In fact, those subjects are all that Closer has to offer. In the rest of the story, Larry and Anna marry and Dan and Alice continue their relationship. But Anna and Dan also begin an affair, which, when revealed, naturally causes their primary relationships to implode. There’s then plenty of angst, recrimination and shouting about sex and revenge to go around. You won’t be surprised that no couple lives happily ever after.

Although it may sound innocuous, or even spicy and provocative, Closer comes off as sterile and numbingly empty, in part because of how thoroughly it reverses the artistic values it presumably thinks it is honoring. In decades past, especially the ’50s to the ’70s, when American filmmakers and playwrights challenged censorship codes with increasingly frank examinations of sexual conduct, the point was to overthrow the artificiality, evasiveness and dishonesty of previous depictions in the name of a greater truthfulness about human psychology and behavior. Some of Nichols’ early films exemplify this purposeful boldness. Closer, on the other hand, illustrates what happens when “frankness” degenerates into a newer form of superficiality and audience-coddling glibness.

The first hallmark of this latter-day dishonesty shows in the way the film, rather than probing human personality (and thus expanding our understanding of it), is content to flatten and caricature it. It would be rash to comment on any of the four actors’ work here, since they’re not really given characters to play. Alice, Dan, Anna and Larry aren’t people so much as they are types copied, it would seem, from the pages of some trendy metrosexual magazine. None seems to have an actual past or existence beyond the pages of the script. They look good (of course) but don’t smell, surprise or bleed. While all eventually get to scream and act “dramatic,” it’s hardly true drama because their stylish surfaces conceal no depth–no capacity for shame, guilt or internal anguish, and thus no chance for the painful revelations of self-understanding.

Derived from a very successful British play by Patrick Marber (who scripted the film), Closer reminds us that while the world is cluttered with bad theater, contemporary English literary culture exhibits a desperate-to-impress vacuity all its own. (For another current example, see the angsty potboiler Enduring Love.) You might blame the film’s air of unreality on the fact that its four characters never interact with other people, which makes the drama’s “staginess” all the more pallid and claustrophobic. Yet Nichols kept a similarly tight focus on two combative couples in Virginia Woolf and the effect was just the opposite: The characters provided all the expansiveness and authenticity we needed, since their words painted vast vistas of actual lives and experiences forged in very specific social and emotional contexts.

The difference between Edward Albee’s writing and Marber’s is not simply that one brilliantly explores human psychology while the other reduces it to soap-operatic shallowness. There’s also the use of language. Albee’s speech roars and sings and breathes, even gulps for air when meaning falters; we believe the people because we believe their words. Marber, on the hand, writes dialogue ripe with a showy, rat-a-tat-tat precision that often passes for cleverness in the theater. It probably reads great on the page, but we know that no one actually talks like this; or rather, we know that people who do aren’t people, but facile constructs.

The final deficiency that separates Marber’s work from the films and plays it hopes to recall–think of everything from Antonioni’s dramas to Pinter’s Betrayal–is the crucial one. In those famous prototypes, conventional morality was often challenged or exploded, but only in the process of suggesting a clearer, more genuine morality: the one envisioned by the author. Here the characters all seem narcissistic and childishly selfish–you can’t believe the word “love” has any meaning for them–yet none of this is posed as a critique from a higher vantage point. And that’s what makes Closer vulnerable to the charge of artistic decadence: Its amorality doesn’t come in the acts or words on screen, but in the lack of probity and insight with which they are conveyed.