The participation of four comely stars who gaze with grave flawlessness out of sleek photographic advertisements is half the draw of the made-for-sophisticates psychological drama Closer. The other half lies in the promise of blistering talk about sex a cruder word would also suffice from the mouths of such paragons.
Julia Roberts and Clive Owen! Natalie Portman and Jude Law! Talking dirty, nasty, hurtful, and loveless! Why, refined sprite Portman even plays a stripper! And in wordy smackdowns, the foursome enact the machinations of two self-deluding, partner-swapping couples who verbally tear at each other with a hatefulness meant to be quite shocking in this unshockable world.
It does shock, I should say, in the way of men and women doing their psychological worst and most ruthless to push away those they have previously pulled close. I'm just not authentically shocked not even when Julia Roberts' character compares the tastes of two men's semen.
The setting is present-day London. The place, the costumes, the staging of sexual provocation and betrayal are refined studies in luxurious understatement. (The simple white, man-style button-down shirt that Roberts wears as a photographer in her working habitat is a thing of style-setting elegance.) The director is Mike Nichols, who adapted the well-received stage play by British playwright Patrick Marber as if slipping into his own favorite togs for an explosive night with old friends George and Martha, those hissing codependents from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, brought to the screen by Nichols nearly 40 years ago.
Something, though, douses the licks of fiery emotion that ought to make Closer a too-close-for-comfort movie experience. But what? It's not the cast. Playing the divorced Anna, who finds herself attracted to a mediocre novelist named Dan (Law) while shooting a portrait of the author, Roberts has never reached deeper or exhibited such an interesting complexity; it's as if the actress has finally grown into the age she's meant to play and no longer feels the need for coltish wiles and smiles. Clive Owen is stupendous as Larry, the dermatologist who wants Anna, gets Anna, and fights to keep her. (On the London stage, Owen originated the part of Dan.) Tearing into Larry's viciousness, his competitiveness, his basest, most sex-driven animal self, the British winner from Croupier (and loser, with no blame on his part, from King Arthur) is the throbbing motor with which Closer surges ahead; he's a galvanizing force.
Law's Dan is a weak man, a weasel posing as a gerbil: Living with the waifish stripper Alice (Portman), he makes a play for Anna (who rejects him), then messes with Larry's head, then makes another play for Anna after Larry has won her because, when it comes down to it, Dan is more aroused by sexual competition with Larry than by the women they share. And Law effectively dulls his marketable sex appeal and gets nicely ugly. Portman plays funky, mysterious, tough chick Alice like the best honor-roll Harvard undergrad who ever became an exotic dancer for the tuition money. The dissonance isn't her fault it's a casting director's world. The polished elements of the production can't be faulted either. Nichols displayed his affinity for adult content early on with Woolf and Carnal Knowledge, and his brilliant recent success with Wit and Angels in America on HBO attests to his rare talent for transplanting productions from stage to screen in a way that incorporates the best of both mediums.
No, the nearest I can come to understanding this gleaming, hands-off Closer is to present it as a problem of scale. Marber has written a small, blunt play, but one that's big and dense with violent desires and rages a plot in which everyone gets tangled with everyone else in the course of skittering away from real intimacy. The sexual pair-offs (to call them romantic is to romanticize them) are as arbitrary as they are calibrated; the words are meant to sting an audience sitting hundreds of feet away. Nichols and his famous players, on the other hand, have made a smooth, ''naughty'' movie and pulled the audience in so close that there's no room for the words to ricochet, to wound. Closer is as indifferent to being loved as any acidic offering from Neil LaBute. But surely the work wants to unsettle. The last thing Marber's quartet of modern miserables needs is to be admired; they are the very worst of average people, but on screen they have become the very best of the baddest.