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Review: 'Closer' haunting, if a bit stilted

By Paul Clinton

Jude Law and Julia Roberts in "Closer"
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Jude Law
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(CNN) -- Much of the dialogue in "Closer," written by Patrick Marber and directed by Mike Nichols, is as pointed, cold and sharp as an icicle. Yet it melts in the mouths of the film's four stars.

Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Clive Owen and Natalie Portman all give stunning performances in this film based on Marber's award-winning play. But Portman and Owen could be arrested for grand theft since they manage to steal the film out from under their heavyweight co-stars.

But it's Roberts and Law who are being pushed by Columbia Pictures as best actor and actress nominees, while Portman and Owen are being touted in the supporting categories.

"Closer" is an acerbic story that intertwines the lives of two couples engaging in an ever-shifting emotional dance as they meet, fall in love and then fall out of love. In the process, all four manage to switch back and forth from one twosome to another. They're actually playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette, using love as a bullet.

The situation soon turns into a brutal competition between the two men over the women in their lives.

"Closer" makes no moral judgments about its characters' behavior and is decidedly adult in its tone and subject matter. Its overriding theme is about love -- obtaining it and losing it and how fragile it can be. The film is also very human, with equal amounts of hostility and vulgarity.

But what better director than Nichols -- the man who brought us "Carnal Knowledge" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- to explore the dark recesses of the human heart? Unfortunately, despite Nichols' great record at adapting plays to film -- "Wit" and "Angels in America" -- "Closer" never completely loses its feeling of being a stage production.

The story jumps forward through huge time gaps, and a great deal of the action takes place off-screen, allowing viewers to see only the characters' reaction to events, not the events themselves. Then add the language which while beautifully delivered, seems too perfect -- almost artificial -- and the result is a production that feels stagey at times.

Natalie Portman and Clive Owen

Portman is breathtaking in her most adult role yet. In her hands, Alice goes from a neurotic waif to a sexually charged stripper in the beat of a heart. As she matures, Portman's beauty -- and talent -- is becoming almost translucent. And her scene where she's wearing nothing but a small bra and a G-string will stop many men's hearts.

Roberts -- who got the part only after Cate Blanchett became pregnant -- does a great dramatic turn as Anna. On the whole, none of these roles are particularly sympathetic, but Roberts manages to wring out a bit of empathy for her character despite Anna's blatant bed hopping. This is her best role since "Erin Brockovich," where she also stepped way out of her usual comfort zone.

Law continues his roll of great performances. This man is becoming a major star with a capital S. But it's Owen who has the stronger character and gives the most compelling performance. Owen was actually in the original stage production in London and played Law's role. Now, as Larry, he's had the opportunity to see the material from both perspectives and he gives a strong, deeply rooted performance. The scene where he breaks up with Anna will nail you to your seat.

The music by Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice is brilliant. His song, "The Blower's Daughter," opens and closes the film and completely captures the tone of the story. It's worthy of an Academy Award nomination.

Overall, despite the lingering feeling of being adapted from the stage, "Closer" is a haunting production that may linger in your mind long after you leave the theater. It has a lot to say about the human condition and what we're willing to go through in order to find and keep love.

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