If watching four really hot people stand around and mope for two hours is your idea of a good time, well, have I got the movie for you.

In “Closer,” Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Jude Law and Natalie Portman play, respectively, a photographer, a dermatologist, a failed novelist and, um, an expatriate stripper. They’re all impossibly gorgeous, self-absorbed and angst-ridden, and as they roll into and out of bed with one another and yammer on about the perilous nature of desire, all I could think to myself was: There may be a war in Iraq, ongoing genocide in Sudan and an AIDS epidemic in Africa, but at least Julia Roberts’ hair looks fabulous.

“Closer” is based on a 1997 stage play by Patrick Marber – one of the countless ugly stepchildren of Jules Feiffer’s “Carnal Knowledge,” in which petty and mean-spirited behavior is passed off as a universal truism, that we’re all selfish barbarians when it comes to love (see, also, the entire ugly canon of Neil LaBute, or the recent “We Don’t Live Here Anymore”).

Marber’s play is repetitive, claustrophobic (there are only four speaking parts) and – with its “90s-era obsessions about cybersex and high-class strippers – awfully dated. It was already dated when I saw the Broadway production in 1999. I didn’t see how anyone could make a decent movie from it.

Guess what? They couldn’t – despite the presence of Mike Nichols (who also directed the film version of “Carnal Knowledge”), fresh from his triumphant film adaptation of another stage play, “Angels in America.” The difference between “Angels” and “Closer” turns out be an object lesson in the art of transferring stage plays to the screen: Whereas “Angels” was forcefully thought through as a “movie,” one that took place in a flesh-and-blood, completely lived-in universe, “Closer” gets stuck in an unfortunate no-man’s land.

It’s afraid to be too spare and self-consciously artificial (like, say, James Foley’s terrific adaptation of “Glengarry Glen Ross),” but it doesn’t come close to “opening up” the way “Angels” did. The result is a movie that seems neither theatrical nor realistic – just fake.

Part of the problem is that, for all the visual imagination he brought to “Angels,” Nichols brings distressingly little to the table here. The only difference between the stage version and the film version is that, in the film, there’s a lot more furniture surrounding the actors. The actors, meanwhile, are either miscast or cast adrift, or both.

Roberts plays Anna, the American photographer living in London who falls in love with Larry (Owen), the dermatologist, until she falls for Dan (Law), the failed novelist. The character of Anna is a bit of a cipher – an icy, possibly amoral woman who seems to enjoy making herself and others miserable. But Roberts doesn’t do icy very well, much less amorality. Instead, she pouts those big lips of hers and wrinkles her brow and tries to make us sympathize.

But sympathize with what? A gorgeous and successful photographer who has two British hunks who want to sleep with her? Some of us would cut off a limb for this woman’s problems.

The other actors fare better, but just barely. Law does a good enough job playing the flirty hound, but we don’t entirely buy his desperation. (Could someone as good-looking as Jude Law ever be that desperate?) Owen comes off as a bit less drippy than usual, and he has an entertainingly unhinged scene shouting at Portman in a strip club – but he still remains more of a brooding character actor than a dashing leading man.

Portman, as the mysterious stripper who has fateful experiences with Anna, Dan and Larry, is lovely and seductive, with her pixieish manner and glimmering brown eyes. (It helps that she looks terrific in a G-string.) But she, too, doesn’t seem to have a grip on an essentially unknowable character.

All of which is to say: You wouldn’t want to spend 30 seconds with these people, much less an entire movie. “Closer” has a couple of nice moments (the cybersex scene is handled with savvy and sly humor), and I suppose I should be grateful for any movie that attempts to reckon with the complexities of modern adult sexuality. But the longer it muddled on, the more whiny, petty and finally pointless it seemed – and the more I wished I were watching “SpongeBob SquarePants.”


Grade: C

Director: Mike Nichols

Stars: Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman

Length: 101 min.

Rated: R (sexual content, strong language)

(c) 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-12-02-04 1348EST

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