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No 'Closer' Than Arm's Length

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2004; Page WE47

IS HE LYING? Is she? Did he sleep with the other woman behind her back? Did she sleep with the other guy? In Mike Nichols's "Closer," these pressing matters of the jealous heart send four modern lovers into a roiling tizzy over the course of a few years.

It's a saucy premise, especially when you consider the comely presence of Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman doing all that bed-hopping, partner-swapping and truth-lopping. And there's the added attraction of Nichols returning to his signature subject: the war between the sexes, as seen in such classics as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "The Graduate" and "Carnal Knowledge."

Natalie Portman and Clive Owen are two of the players in the pretty but vacant "Closer." (Stephen Goldblatt -- Columbia Pictures)

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But if "Closer" shows us the whole Sturm und Drang of modern relationships -- attraction, deception, jealousy and passion -- it doesn't show us much more. Nichols's sophisticated direction, screenwriter Patrick Marber's irony-laden dialogue, and the eye-candilicious presence of our stars produce nothing more than surface warfare.

In London, obituary writer Dan (Law) falls in love with (or feels really, really attracted to) a twenty-something American visitor (Portman), a stripper, who has made the mistake of looking the wrong way crossing the street. Knocked over by a cab, and unconscious for a few seconds, she looks up to see Dan bending over her.

"Hello, stranger," she says.

Off they go to the emergency room to check her out and to get acquainted. Her name, she tells him, is Alice. And down the romantic rabbit hole they go, bound for curiouser and curiouser complications.

Dan and Alice have become an item when Dan meets photographer Anna (Roberts), who is separated. After some cutesy verbal jousting, it's clear they're attracted to each other. But there is the inconvenience of Alice. When Anna learns about Alice, she resists Dan's advances. But only at first.

Frustrated by Anna's initial reluctance, Dan gets on to a sex chat site and, posing as Anna, exchanges sexually frank instant messages with Larry (Owen), a lonely and horny dermatologist. But when Dan (still playing Anna) arranges to meet Larry at a local aquarium for a sexual encounter, never intending to show up, he causes more havoc than he intended.

Looking around for some sexual firebrand called "Anna," Larry bumps into the real Anna (who's sitting right next to him at the aquarium) and makes savory remarks. In one of the movie's many extended, stagy conversations, Larry and Anna mutually figure out Dan's role in all this and embark on an affair of their own.

Now we are four. Let the complications begin.

"Closer" could have been a fine farce with just a few adjustments, like funny lines and situations. But Nichols and Marber (adapting his play) are going for serious and tortured. Too bad "serious and tortured," in this case, is so external and superficial. Even though all four performers work themselves into an acting frenzy (with Owen and Portman coming off best), they are mere deliverers of snippy, smart-alecky rejoinders -- as if Nichols is trying to reevoke the verbal snap that screenwriter Jules Feiffer brought to "Carnal Knowledge."

As characters, they're almost interchangeable. You could swap around their circumstances without any noticeable difference. Dan could be the photographer, heck, even the stripper. Alice the stripper could be a dermatologist; Portman does have great skin, after all.

The great romantic comedies (and tragedies) brim over with insights and bons mots about the craziness of love, the neverending tussle between the genders and the importance of love as a way of life. In "Closer," everything is tearful confessions, angry interrogations and breakups. But there's nothing underneath. Sure, there's a rubber-necky attraction to watching these good-looking, half-baked creations living anguished, photogenic lifestyles. But it's unclear if we're supposed to feel engaged. Does love matter in this movie? Is it the answer? And is there anything to be gleaned from the movie, other than "Oops, I Did It Again"? There is still no apparent wisdom as the closing credits come up.

CLOSER (R, 103 minutes) -- Contains graphic sexual language, nudity, sexual scenes and obscenity. Area theaters.

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