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'CLOSER' KEEPS ITS DISTANCE FROM INTIMACY.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

IT'S BEEN a very good year for sophisticated sex movies - ``Kinsey,'' the British release ``The Mother,'' Pedro Almodovar's upcoming ``Bad Education.'' They all approach the oft-exploited subject with imagination, the full range of adult considerations and humane respect for their characters, regardless of how unpleasant their behavior may get.

``Closer,'' Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's award-winning stage play, would dearly desire to be included in that number. But like its misbegotten quartet of manipulative lovers, the movie offers only intermittent satisfaction.

Opened up onto a number of little-filmed London locations, the movie charts the meetings, breakups and reconfigurations of two men and two women over a four-year span. Keeping that aspect of the play's structure wipes out whatever cinematic naturalism the expanded settings provide; it still feels too structured, too artificially presented for the medium of film.

The same could be said, of course, of ``Carnal Knowledge,'' Nichols' 1971 movie taken from what had originally been an unproduced Jules Feiffer play. But the older film worked much better. Perhaps that was because its scorched-earth battles of the sexes were more startling to cinemagoers at the time. But it was also due to the fact that the doomed relationships in that movie had more to them than just sex and jealousy, which are basically all that the ``Closer'' folks talk about.

Oh, and in ``Carnal Knowledge,'' they didn't just talk about it. Obsessed as everyone seems to be with it, nobody comes close to performing an act of love in ``Closer.'' That's a weird disconnect, especially at a time when other movies approach the subject with forthright, unapologetic frankness.

Here, an absurd level of Hollywood puritanism is achieved when Natalie Portman's stripper character, Alice, does a private dance for Clive Owen's Larry in which Nichols refuses to show anything you'd expect to see in such a situation. We're expected to be contented, I suppose, by the sound of Julia Roberts talking dirty.

She's a photographer, Anna. The fourth wheel is Dan (Jude Law), a newspaper obituary writer whose first novel fails to sell. Dan initially picks up visiting American waif Alice, but a year or so of cohabitational bliss later, he meets and makes a play for Anna. She rejects him.

Dan goes on the Internet and, in the movie's funniest sequence, pretends to be a hot babe named Anna in a chat room with dermatologist Larry. Dan arranges a meeting at a spot the real Anna frequents, Larry goes there and makes a fool of himself, but he and Anna hit it off anyway and eventually marry.

Jump ahead another year or so, and we discover Anna's been enjoying a secret interest with Dan. When their partners find out, they split, then later meet at that gentleman's club. Dan and Anna set up house, sort of, but Larry isn't finished with them yet. As for the relatively honest Alice, well, what stripper doesn't have a secret or two to hide behind?

Acting-wise, top honors go to Owen, who played Dan in the original London stage production. A working-class bloke who bettered himself, his Larry knows how to get what he wants while causing the maximum psychic damage to those who've hurt him. The film's most charged scene is between him and Law, although Owen carries fraught exchanges with Roberts and Portman, too.

But the others, I'm afraid, are generally undone by their characters' constricted dimensions. Anna doesn't come off as cruel, exactly, but in Roberts' hands she is one humorless ditz when it comes to understanding her own feelings. Law gives Dan some wicked brio early on, but as the cad becomes the crushed, his presence only grows thinner and shriller.

Portman comports herself as well as can be expected. She sheds a tear exquisitely, seems well enough in control of Alice's end of the four-way crying game, and, to be honest, I'd feel pretty pervy watching so girlish a woman's private parts.

But that's no excuse for Nichols to have shot ``Closer'' so antiseptically. Nor is there much of an excuse for Marber, who adapted his play for the screen, to bypass the thousands of factors that affect a relationship (and its sex), which aren't solely tied to carnality and fidelity.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

CLOSER - Two and one half stars

(R: language, nudity)

Starring: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen.

Director: Mike Nichols.

Running time: 1 hr. 38 min.

Playing: Wide release.

In a nutshell: Two couples switch partners, hurt each other and talk dirty, then do it all over again in this adaptation of Patrick Marber's corrosive stage play.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Jude Law and Julia Roberts, top, and Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, above, play the troubled couples of ``Closer.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 3, 2004
Words:801
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