The caustic wit and brute force of Patrick Marber's acclaimed play come across with a softened edge in Mike Nichols' bigscreen version of "Closer." Pic's one-dimensionality is paradoxically exposed by the medium's inherent realism. Charged sexual elements and tony pedigree will combine for sharp B.O. in more sophisticated, upscale situations.

The caustic wit and brute force of Patrick Marber’s acclaimed play come across with a softened edge in Mike Nichols’ bigscreen version of “Closer.” Intriguing as a companion piece to the director’s early-career studies of the sexual battleground, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and especially “Carnal Knowledge,” pic’s one-dimensionality is paradoxically exposed by the medium’s inherent realism, with its close-ups and real locations. Although the female roles are not ideally cast, powerhouse star lineup, charged sexual elements and tony pedigree will combine for sharp B.O. in more sophisticated, upscale situations, but much less so in the boonies.

Marber’s second play, which won the Olivier Award as the best of 1997 in the U.K., is the sort of work London legit critics describe as “searing,” “scorching” and “withering.” Ingeniously structured piece jigsaws together four years in the lives of four beautiful young people whose talent for attracting one another is surpassed only by their need to indelibly scar those they purport to love.

First comes the catnip of the seduction dance. Waify American vagabond Alice (Natalie Portman) is rescued after a London traffic accident by local journo Dan (Jude Law), and her frisky ways, even in the hospital, enchant him. Some time later, Dan, getting photographed for his author’s portrait by another Yank, Anna (Julie Roberts), puts the make on her while admitting he lives with Alice; the latter, visiting after the session, instantly senses the sexual vibes that have recently filled the studio.

Film’s most explicit interlude reprises the scene that became an instant classic in the stage version, which Marber himself directed. Hooking up with Larry (Clive Owen), a successful dermatologist, on an Internet sex chat site, Dan proves himself adept at one kind of writing (his novel fails), when he is role-playing, pretending to be a woman. He provokes Larry into a frenzy of cyberspatial desire by promising a rendezvous with an “Anna” the next day at the aquarium. Lo and behold, Anna herself turns up, and she and the ruggedly attractive Larry soon are on a quick path to amour.

Uninterested in the quotidian of long-term relationships, Marber keenly delineates the beginnings of lust and the turning points that signal the end. As readily as the characters articulate their desire, they also volunteer, usually in the most brutal terms, their changes of heart; through unvarnished honesty they can be sure to generate a full charge of hate.

Inclined to confrontation and compulsively pushing matters to beyond the brink, Larry, in the film’s strongest scene, ferociously forces Anna to reveal not only that she had a year-long affair with Dan, but the most explicit details of their sex life, all the better to masochistically absorb the full bitterness of her betrayal and tell her what she can do with herself.

Having been kicked out by Dan and working in a sex club, Alice is encountered by Larry, who in another potent scene desperately begs the scantily clad girl for intimacy, only to be rejected with polite professionalism. In the end, Larry uses his penchant for unrestrained truth-telling to manipulate the seemingly happy Dan and Anna, leading to a finale that wrings a twist on the more dire outcome of the play.

Piece is structured with subtly deceptive skill. No device signals the sometimes significant chronological jumps (flashbacks pop up as well), but the time frames are soon enough indicated in dialogue, and the intense compression of the work (which ran well over two hours onstage) leaves nary a word or image wasted.

A lifelong master not only of the stage but of artfully transferring stage material to the screen, as last proven by “Angels in America,” Nichols keeps his finger on the text’s corrosive pulse while decking out the action in clean, chilly visuals. But whereas the play’s narrow focus was arguably disguised and bolstered by highly stylized staging, its more naturalistic presentation onscreen reveals its artificiality. Like dramas by Pinter and others, what seems trenchant and perfectly pitched in the theater can come off as arch even when skillfully transferred to film.

The male side of the equation is very capably handled by Owen and Law. Owen, who played Dan in the original National Theater production, dominates the film with a crafty, stinging performance as Larry that induces him to show more vibrant colors and more shading than he has onscreen before. Law is in top form as the emotionally quicksilver Dan, and the two men share a potent scene late in the game in which Larry describes the lay of the land to Dan in no uncertain terms.

Roberts and Portman, their characters changed from Brits to Americans to little textual effect, deliver up to their abilities, but in neither case does one feel the roles are being maximized. Roberts, especially, is the weak link of the four, coming off as wan and under-energized compared with the others, and creating a less-knowing and articulate character than Natasha Richardson did in New York.

In her first fully adult role in every sense of the word, Portman jumps into the deep end emotively and physically and makes good connections with both Alice’s tough and vulnerable sides. But she seems still too girly for the role and cannot put sex or sensuality across with conviction. By contrast, Anna Friel was stunningly hot and revelatory in the role on Broadway, and it’s a shame this too-little-seen actress wasn’t given the chance to raise the film’s temperature.

Stephen Goldblatt’s sleek and immaculate lensing employs a gray-looking London as backdrop to the volatile words and emotions, and mostly classical source music is deftly used.

Closer

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Inside Track. Produced by Mike Nichols, John Calley, Cary Brokaw. Executive producers, Scott Rudin, Celia Costas, Robert Fox. Co-producer, Michael Haley. Co-executive producers, Duncan Reid, James Clayton, Paula Jalfon. Directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay, Patrick Marber, based on his play.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Stephen Goldblatt; editors, John Bloom, Antonia Van Drimmelen; production designer, Tim Hatley; supervising art director, Mark Raggett; art director, Hannah Moseley; set decorator, John Bush; costume designer, Ann Roth; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Ivan Sharrock; supervising sound editor, Ron Bochar; associate producers, Mary Bailey, Paul A. Levin; assistant director, Michael Haley. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, Nov. 17, 2004. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Anna - Julia Roberts Dan - Jude Law Alice - Natalie Portman Larry - Clive Owen
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