Julia Roberts has been called many things in her time, but it's still a shock to hear the queen of the rom-com described as a "fucked-up slag". Welcome to the profane world of Closer, an acrid, scabrous delve into modern relationships from the poison pen of playwright Patrick Marber and the gimlet eye of director Mike Nichols.
Nichols has walked this beat before, notably in Heartburn and the Burton-Taylor classic Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? And with Wit, Biloxi Blues and Angels In America also on his resumé, Closer is yet more evidence of the veteran helmer's penchant for stage-to-screen transfers. The closest thing to Closer, however, must surely be Neil LaBute, whose caustic studies of misanthropy and betrayal appear to inform Marber's chilly view of sexual power games. Since his 1997 play premièred before In The Company Of Men was even released, any likeness is clearly unintentional. It's unfortunate, though, that the seismic impact LaBute's made in the intervening seven years inevitably robs Nichols' film of its sucker-punch surprise.
What Closer has, though, in addition to a classy Anglo-American ensemble and authentically grubby London locations, is an honesty and raw intelligence that lend its tangled mesh of interlocking love affairs a compelling ring of truth. Marber's masterstroke is to focus on the promising beginnings and bitter endings of his protagonists' relationships, leaving out their middles altogether. No sooner has a romance started than we cut to it crashing in flames, months of joy, complacency and boredom traversed in a single edit.
It's an admittedly theatrical device that spotlights Closer's stage roots. But it's ideal for showing that the ruthless pursuit of sexual gratification isn't all that dissimilar from the cruelty lovers casually inflict once the first flush of attraction has faded. "What do I have to do to get some intimacy around here?" wails Clive Owen's cuckolded dermatologist, his chosen profession an apt metaphor for the thin skin of civility masking the characters' selfishness. It's Jude Law's callow obituary writer, however, who comes closest to articulating Marber's message when he sneers, "What's so great about the truth? Try lying - it's the currency of the world."
The actors gleefully spend this currency like it's going out of circulation. Okay, so Law doesn't quite convince as an amoral heartbreaker, his boyish charms forever thawing Dan's icy resolve. But the usually impassive Owen delivers a startlingly intense performance, while Roberts reveals a vein of steel that's too often missing from her Hollywood outings. The revelation, though, is Natalie Portman, her naïve waif turned pink-bewigged stripper signifying her evolution as a grown-up actress. Star Wars is a universe away.