That voodoo that you do to me 

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The director behind Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Graduate tries out a new generation of hot young stars on his emotional trapeze in Closer.

Mike Nichols wrings the romance out of that crazy little thing called love

Like Mike Nichols' first film, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer has as much rapid-fire banter and biting wit as you'd hope to find in a comedy. But you're not very likely to mistake it for one: As with the caustic Woolf, Closer insists on showing us the horrific side of love, the nasty things we do to ourselves and each other while we pursue and live out the world's most celebrated emotional state. A date movie it ain't, but it's not a dour, "this tastes awful but is good for you" dose, either; the story, the filmmaking, and the performances are captivating, even for viewers who find it impossible to like any of the characters.

This tale was originally a stage play, and it's obvious. Even though Nichols is successful in making it visually engaging and cinematic, this is still the story of four people and the ways they help and hurt each other, and it's really all dialogue and confrontation. The screenplay was written by the playwright, Patrick Marber, who had a long enough run with the play in the '90s to know what dialogue he could and couldn't trim, but the filmmaker (who has a theatrical career as distinguished as his filmmaking one, and has helmed great screen adaptations of the plays Wit and Angels in America) is clearly a big part of why the transition works.

Nichols' film skips through time like a smooth rock cast across a lake: He begins with the moment in which two characters meet, then pops in on them at intervals as their relationship develops and degrades. There are none of the usual cues movies give for the passage of time; one scene ends, and suddenly we're sitting in a bedroom four months later. That's one way of disproving "happily ever after."

Law and Portman are a couple, then Roberts and Owen - does it need saying that this is the prettiest film cast this year? - and, as the characters meet each other, they couple in different ways as well. Over the course of the film, each of them will get to be both the weak partner and the strong one; each will be helpless, then cruel. The proportions vary, though: Law, a struggling writer who pays the bills by penning obituaries, is the most flawed; Portman is the least objectionable, largely because she appears to be the least powerful.

Closer
Dir. Mike Nichols; writ. Patrick Marber; feat. Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen (R)
Closer makes ugly but true observations about men and women. It knows what cruelty is - casually exploiting a secret pet name, for instance - and when honesty is the absolute worst policy. It knows there are some situations in which nothing - not lies, not the truth, and not pretending you didn't hear the question - is going to prevent a disaster; sometimes there is no good answer to the question "Did you fuck him?" (For one thing, an honest answer only invites more painfully detailed questions.) Closer may delve a lot closer to the bone than some viewers care for, but once you're watching it's hard to ignore.

By John DeFore


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