A tale of tormented love. Jude Law stars as Dan, a tortured writer who betrays his girlfriend Alice (Natalie Portman) with Anna (Julia Roberts), who will soon become the girlfriend of Larry, played by Clive Owen. Based on Patrick Marber's stage play of the same name (in which Owen played the role of Dan), ''Closer'' is ''unusual in that it has huge time jumps,'' says director Mike Nichols, whose last stage-to-screen adaptation, HBO's ''Angels in America,'' recently racked up 21 Emmy nominations. ''It's all beautiful beginnings and miserable endings, somewhat like the way you experience your own adventures in love as you look back.'' While all four cast members said yes to Nichols immediately -- ''If he asked me to pick up his dog's poop for a year, I would do it,'' says Portman -- there was some concern about the darkness of the material. ''On the surface, it was a piece that really depressed me,'' says Roberts, who inherited the role from Cate Blanchett after Blanchett became pregnant. ''It's about deception and confusion, and I thought, 'People just don't act like this.' But you get in there, and it [becomes] something that you make very human, so it's not just these grand, horrible, bad things that people do. It's more painful than that.''
Embracing the spirit of the stage version, the cast gathered in New York for two weeks of rehearsal before heading off to London to begin filming. ''We spent hours and hours talking,'' says Portman. ''I remember Julia saying it was like school.'' Complete with reading material: Roberts and Nichols both handed out favorite books, with Nichols contributing Alessandro Baricco's ''Silk'' and Roberts suggesting Jeanette Winterson's ''The Passion.'' ''They were tales of passionate love, because [the movie] is all about that,'' Portman continues. ''There's this nastiness [to the film], but the deepest part is the passion when people feel they have no choice.''
[WHAT'S AT STAKE] Sony is looking for a Best Picture contender -- something the studio hasn't had in at least four years (remember ''Erin Brockovich''?).