"So, do you like gladiator movies?"

© 2004, Columbia Pictures
All Rights Reserved

When obituary writer Dan (Jude Law) meets former stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) by accident one day on a crowded London street, his life changes forever and he falls deeply in love. That is, until he meets photographer Anna (Julia Roberts) a year later, and his romantic crosshairs move over to her. Trouble is, she's involved with dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen), who is extremely protective of her, but he is paralyzed with revulsion as he watches Anna succumb to Dan's charms. In a fit of desperation, Larry sets his sights on Alice, thus forming a dark chain of treachery and adultery that is destined to destroy everyone involved.

"Closer" (IMDb listing) takes filmmaker Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Angels in America") back to his most fertile dramatic grounds: the fighting couple. More than 30 years ago, Nichols investigated poisonous relationships with his landmark film, "Carnal Knowledge," which became a prominent buoy floating in the sea of the sexual revolution. "Closer" comes at a time when society is supposed to be more articulate about feelings and relationships, but here we are, making the same mistakes all over again.

Adapted from a play written by Patrick Marber (who also wrote the script), "Closer" is about the toxicity of jealousy and the predictable insecurities of men and women. It's dazzling material, written with juicy, R-rated language and meaty situations that ring true to life. It's not an easy sit, with much of the focus allocated to the fine line between adoration and fixation. Marber mines that phantom zone expertly, designing four individuals who truly can't stand each other, yet are unable to let go due to their towering distrust. Unlikable characters? You bet. However, Marber and Nichols stay true to their rancid relationship view, never once allowing a moment of sympathy to creep in, icily keeping the characters committed to their selfishness all the way to the end. There are no warm hugs at the conclusion of this tale, and that is delightful. By keeping "Closer" sinister and honest, Nichols can further explore the themes of obsession that make up the four walls of the film. He directs skillfully and sparingly, maintaining the focus on Marber's searing words of romantic spite.

Selling this carnival of sex and loathing are the four leads, who are all brilliantly cast against type. While Jude Law and Julia Roberts both act with grace and fearlessness, the real accolades should be reserved for Clive Owen and Natalie Portman. Owen (who originated the role of Dan on stage) is normally a reserved actor, preferring inner fire to overacting. In "Closer," he's an emotional dragon, clomping around in fits of random protectiveness and ferocious resentment. Owen is at the top of his game here, seething with rage as Larry slowly comprehends the sexual square dance that is happening in front of his eyes. Owen exudes vitriol with every breath. It's a deliriously fantastic performance.

On the other hand, Portman's role requires a hand played more carefully, with her character not willing to indulge true intimacy for fear of collapse. Portman plays Alice as a worldly soul who has seen enough obsession in her life for two people; a child thrust into adulthood, struggling to compete with the affected adults that surround and desire her. Portman plays it wonderfully, fulfilling the promise she showed in Zach Braff's "Garden State." Alice demands distance, allure and a certain sexual posture, and Portman captures it all.

"Closer" is a dangerous, honest film that cuts deeply with its collage of romantic idealism, cancerous suspicion, and perfect performances. It isn't a film easily dismissed or forgotten.

Filmfodder Grade: A-

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