String-puller: Four of an unkind get <I>Closer

The message I took from Closer is that relationships would be a lot simpler if you had one set of people to love and another set to have sex with. Of course, married men have been practicing this philosophy for hundreds of years.

It would certainly make things easier for the four characters in Patrick Marber's play, which he's adapted for the screen by incorporating a lot of London scenery, if they could just have sex without love getting in the way.

Closer seems to be a writing exercise to the point of gimmickry as Marber explores how many ways four heterosexuals– two men and two women– can couple and uncouple over the course of a few years. The men are English, the women American.

Jude Law flirts with Natalie Portman in the first sequence and Julia Roberts in the second, suggesting we're in for Alfie 2. But his name is Dan and, posing as a woman in a sex chat room, he flirts with Clive Owen in the third sequence. Now it could be On_Line 2, but that's a lot more obscure.

Dan hooks up with Alice (Portman), "a waif... just arrived from New York." She was a stripper there but gets a job as a waitress in London. He writes obituaries for a newspaper, but living with Alice inspires him to write a novel about her.

Needing a publicity photo sends Dan to Anna (Roberts), a photographer. The photo session turns into a makeout session because he thinks she's a hottie. She thinks he's a sleaze when she finds out he has a girlfriend.

Dan doesn't give up but plays a prank that works out better than anyone could have expected. Meeting Larry (Owen), a dermatologist, online as "Anna" he makes a date to meet, and the real Anna just happens to be there when Larry shows up.

In the next scene Larry and Anna have been together for four months when all four of them show up at an opening of an exhibition of Anna's photos, including one of Alice. Larry flirts with Alice while Dan continues his pursuit of Anna.

Are you dizzy yet? You will be. Before this game of revolving bedroom doors is over, each man will have slept with both women, one couple will have been married, and everyone will have been unfaithful to someone while talking about how much they value honesty.

On top of the plot convolutions, the dialogue consists largely of witty banter, the kind that can get annoying in such quantity. This could have been a very bad movie in less capable hands than those of veteran director Mike Nichols, who makes it all look better than it should.

Nichols has also lined up a perfect cast. With Law so overexposed this season and Roberts not breaking much new ground, the revelations are Owen and Portman. I'm withdrawing my vote for him to play James Bond because I'd rather see him in roles like this. Larry is a nouveau-riche working-class scumbag who tells Dan, "A good fight is never clean;" and Owen captures all his charm and viciousness.

Portman is suddenly all grown up, baring her body and soul in ways you'd never expect. Her scene with Owen in the strip club is arguably the film's best.

You could actually make a case for almost any scene in the film as being the best. It's only when they're all put together that they don't work as well. You expect to see strings being pulled in a puppet show, but not in a drama that's supposed to be realistic and insightful about human relationships.



Closer music: Jem provided the theme

If you've seen the trailer for Closer, you may have noticed something familiar about the song playing in the background. It's ATO Records' Welsh songstress Jem performing "Come on Closer" from her Finally Woken album. The trailer is just the song's latest TV coup: It was also used in teasers for the hit ABC show Desperate Housewives.

  If you missed Jem's mid-November Starr Hill performance, you can catch her next on the Ellen Degeneres Show on December 15.