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The Globe and Mail

Directed by Mike Nichols
Written by Patrick Marber
Starring Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

Closer is the cyanide of love potions -- one sniff of this and Romeo would have dumped Juliet, Heloise would have written off Abelard, the bloom of romance would wither from the sweetest rose. The setting is nominally present-day London, but really it's the dark side of the amorous moon, a cratered place where two men and two women play a vicious game of mix-and-match with their bodies no less than their emotions. Playwright Patrick Marber put it bluntly enough, saying this (or approximately this) about his own creation: ''Closer is a play where people meet, screw, screw each other up, and then screw off.'' Clearly, we've come a long way from ''Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.''

So cue the impediments, a parade of nastiness and prevarication that theatre audiences seem to have thoroughly enjoyed -- the play has marched across the world's stages to wide applause. Also, who better than director Mike Nichols to bring it to the big screen? After all, in his career, Nichols has dipped often and eagerly into love's poisoned well -- in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in Carnal Knowledge, in Angels in America, and that final close-up in The Graduate isn't exactly a Hallmark card to wedded bliss.

His task is eased by the fact the stage material is inherently cinematic, flitting quickly through time to chart the changing sexual alliances among the four characters. That they're all rather superficial is suggested by their skin-deep occupations: Larry (Clive Owen) is a dermatologist, Anna (Julia Roberts) a photographer, Alice (Natalie Portman) a stripper, and Dan (Jude Law) a journalist.

The script, by Marber himself, focuses only on the beginnings and endings of their various relationships, mainly the endings, which recur with a brutal force guaranteed to accentuate the pun in the title: The same intimacy that draws us closer also acts as a closer. So images of termination, of finality and death, abound. It's no coincidence that Dan writes obituaries for the local rag, or that the story is framed by twinned visits to a London cemetery. Essentially, this whole picture is a tombstone to love.

That's a legitimate theme (at least on gloomy days), but hardly an attractive one. Marber's problem, then, is obvious: How to engage us in this sorry fable, how to make us care? His solution is twofold -- through plot and through dialogue. The first is quite clever, an intricate dance that brings the four together in serial couplings. On a busy street, Dan meets Alice literally by accident, then betrays her when he falls for Anna, whom he inadvertently sets up with Larry, whom she later marries even while furtively carrying on with Dan, whose own deceptions have driven Alice away and eventually into contact with Larry, who . . . well, on it goes. There's real enjoyment here, a chance to admire both the sheer mechanics of the narrative and Nichols's shrewd application of the cinematic oil.

As for the dialogue, it ranges from witty to caustic to downright mean. Although the overall effect is more Mamet-lite than Mamet-like, the language definitely does what it's meant to do -- that is, establish the view that a romantic relationship is a power struggle in which the balance keeps shifting. This is Neil LaBute territory. So, as the couplings develop, each character is strong at certain stages and weak at others. What links them is their shared capacity for self-serving lies ("Lying is the currency of the world," says one) and their hypocritical notion of honesty, which varies according to the power they wield. In every case, the "truth" is what they beg to hear when they're weak but not what they choose to tell when they're strong. Where honesty is the exception amid a broad tissue of lies, mere closeness brings no one closer, and lovers are doomed to end as they began -- unknown to each other. Alice's first words to Dan are a smiling, "Hello, stranger" -- and they might as well be her last.

Again, Marber is entitled to his misanthropy, yet he's obliged to make us buy into it emotionally, and, in this currency, plot and dialogue alone aren't sufficient assets. He needs a third, characterization, but that's where the film falls short. Because none of the four antagonists is explored in depth, they come to seem like indistinguishable jerks, a quartet of wily pawns assembled to make a gloomy point but denied any specific individuality. Shown their flaws yet not their frailties, we build no empathy and lose all interest. If the movie is a goldfish bowl, and the jerks are in a feeding frenzy, so be it -- but please give us a reason to keep our noses pressed against the glass.

This leaves the cast to play superficial characters only on the surface, which they do with the aid of their separate performance props -- Law with his writerly spectacles, Portman with red streaks in her punky do, Owen with a jowly face darkened by an omnipresent stubble, Roberts with a flat vocal delivery (also Mamet-lite) hinting at a near-transcendent disdain. Each is good, but Portman and Owen must be singled out -- the one for her coming-of-age metamorphosis (a bit stiff yet still brave) into a potty-mouthed sexpot; the other for his picture-stealing mix of menace and vulnerability, a simmering cauldron that perpetually threatens to erupt into an ugly boil.

Ultimately, though, they're all just annoying variations on the same loveless theme. Consequently, despite Marber's sardonic wit and Nichols's intelligent direction, the film winds up in the ironic position of practising exactly what it preaches: Closer invites and even gains our intimacy, only to finish by driving us ever farther away.

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