There is no single protagonist in this love quadrangle set in contemporary London, but the character through which all of the others are introduced is Dan (Jude Law), an aspiring novelist who earns his living by writing obituaries. One day on the street he meets American stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) literally by accident, and he is smitten. That he has an unseen live-in girlfriend serves as forewarning. Cut to a year later: Dan has finally written a book; Alice is his muse. At a photo shoot for the book jacket, he falls in love with photographer Anna (Julia Roberts), but she rebuffs him because of Alice. One night Dan impersonates Anna in a risque online chat room. He invites dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) to meet up at the aquarium, one of Anna's favorite haunts. She happens to be there, and Anna and Larry fall in love.
What is so alluring about Patrick Marber's script, adapted from his award-winning stage play, is that it mimics the way we remember love affairs. Here only the dramatic beginnings and endings of relationships are shown; the everydayness of love -- between the initial intoxication and ultimate devastation of falling in and out of it -- has been edited out. A melodramatic soundtrack that suffuses import into an otherwise mirthful online sex chat and rapid, raw dialogue in which every syllable drools with significance put "Closer" in danger of tipping toward pretentiousness. But, in a film whose credited cast totals six -- two of whom are limited to a couple of lines each -- one can't help but be seduced by the four leads.
Portman, marking her arrival as an adult actress, seems alarmingly out of place among her peers who range from one to two decades older than she. Her childlike quality does not go unnoted in the film and indeed heightens the level of discomfort during a particularly skeevy scene in a strip club during which she -- and the camera -- are at their most coy. Roberts likewise makes a dramatic departure here. Although there are no actual sex scenes in the film, the explicitly descriptive language that comes out of her mouth is a far cry from "Pretty Woman."
It becomes clear, however, that the central conflict here is the battle, rife with sexual jealousy, between the two men. Law, resurrecting the vainglorious cads he played in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Alfie," is egoless in his portrayal of a suitor described as "gentler" and "sweeter" than his often ham-fisted nemesis. Pretty and sensitive, he's the sort of emasculated man that's supposed to be attractive to the modern woman. Meanwhile, Owen, who played Dan in the London stage production, brings a virile masculinity to the role of Larry in the film's most arresting performance. He possesses a primal, at times menacing physicality that renders his rival pathetic; the theatre throbs with testosterone when he's onscreen. Starring Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Patrick Marber. Produced by Mike Nichols, John Calley and Cary Brokaw. A Columbia release. Drama. Rated R for sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality and language. Running time: 104 min