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MOVIE REVIEW

On 'Closer' inspection, Nichols rules

The smoky Damien Rice ballad "The Blower's Daughter" serves as the theme of Mike Nichols's incisive sex drama "Closer." But it's "How Soon Is Now?," the despairing Smiths song pleading on the soundtrack (at a strip club of all places!), that characterizes the mood of this movie and its four achy-breaky souls: "Shut your mouth. How can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human, and I need to be loved, just like everybody else does."

In "Closer," that need can't be met, although it doesn't stop these people from looking for love, even if it means battering and breaking the lovers they already have. To some extent, the movie is about congenital dissatisfaction. In another sense, it's about the disjunction between who people are and why they love.

The four characters are successful professionals and emotional failures. Anna (Julia Roberts) is a photographer with no real human depth perception. Dan (Jude Law) is a journalist (he writes obituaries), and he's perfectly at home with a lie. Alice (Natalie Portman) is a stripper who is psychologically overdressed. And Larry (Clive Owen), the most fascinating of the bunch, is a dermatologist who proves adept at getting under the skin. (The men are English, the women American, and everybody's very attractive.) And as Anna, Dan, Alice, and Larry find internecine ways to be awful to one another, they form a four-part disharmony.

At 73, Nichols is in peak form. He's still drawn to bilious relationships, though "Closer" is a work of minimalism compared with the volcano he made of Tony Kushner's AIDS saga "Angels in America" for HBO last year. In many ways, "Closer," which the Briton Patrick Marber adapted from his own play, makes a jarring sidekick to "Carnal Knowledge," the scathing portrait of men in the age of feminism that Nichols and the playwright Jules Feiffer made 33 years ago.

Only in its moments of acid bluntness does "Closer" reach the scabrous heights of that movie. It's also cold, where "Carnal Knowledge" is molten. But working with the movie's emotional scheming and traces of dark comedy, Nichols is completely in his element, and the picture, while noticeably cerebral, is never antiseptic. The performances in "Carnal Knowledge" leave a nastier bruise, but the ones in "Closer" are cleverer. The film accumulates its own quiet power, as these four people move in and out of each other's hearts.

The movie unfolds over about three years in nearly a dozen sequences in which only two of the characters talk to each other at a time. Major things happen between these scenes (all the sex, mostly), but we only witness the aftermath. Dan meets Alice crossing a London street. A car hits her. He takes her to the hospital. A few months pass, they're dating, and Dan has written a soon-to-be-published book loosely about her. Anna takes Dan's author photo in her loft, where Dan decides it's a good place to seduce this stranger, and with Alice just downstairs. But she spurns him. Later, in a comically kinky scene, he sublimates his lust for Anna by entering an online sex chat, pretending to be her, and winds up seducing Larry.

"Anna" and Larry agree to meet in a spot where, in a cosmic twist, the real Anna happens to be. Needless to say, she's confused but deduces who's behind it. And you have to wonder whether Dan would have pulled this prank if he knew that Larry looks and sounds like Clive Owen and that Anna would wind up marrying the guy.

But "Closer" is about the primitive cancer that devours certain men's security and the dangerously competitive monster that lurks in them, too. The movie exists in the same theater of cruelty that Jean Racine and Neil Labute inhabit. So maybe part of Dan appreciates having a rival as sexy as he is. Larry seems to appreciate having one as deft as Dan.

In one of the film's most searing exchanges, Anna confesses that she's been sleeping with Dan, and Larry is more admiring than he is hurt. He finds the deception "clever" and immediately begins to cross-examine her to find out what the sex was like with Dan. Her vulgar answer is a bolt of lightning, the sort of zinger that made Nichols's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" feel like an electrical storm.

Roberts tears into this moment for all it's worth. And the way she fires that line at Owen is unforgettable. Still, this is the quietest, least insistent she's ever been. Anna is confused, spineless, visibly needy, and ultimately disappointed in herself, so Roberts in a sense is brilliantly miscast. The last word goes to everyone but her, the camera likes her least, and Nichols doesn't allow her to dominate the proceedings, all of which produces unprecedented sympathy. She haunts the picture with a loneliness and remorse we've never seen from her.

Portman has the toughest role. It's hard to act well while wrapped around a pole or simulating a lap dance, but she does. Portman has an amazing long scene with Owen in a private carrel at Alice's strip club. Anna's just left Larry for Dan, who's dumped Alice for Anna, and Larry wants her to commiserate, which she refuses to do. Instead, she Scotch-tapes a smile over her ripped heart. Portman combines Alice's trashy cunning and her baby-doll innocence until a young woman emerges from the cliche. Eventually, Larry just wants to know her real name, and Nichols makes that seem like the most erotic thing a man can know about a woman.

After working really hard for nothing in last summer's "King Arthur," Owen finally gets the role in a big movie he deserves. In "Closer," both his character and his performance sneak up on you. When Anna leaves Larry, something primal is dragged out of him (he calls himself a caveman), and the gentleman dies. He doesn't want to lose Anna, but he certainly doesn't want to lose her to the man who punked him. On any number of levels, that chat-room episode is a traumatic violation for him, and Owen is very shrewd about how he plays Larry's vengeance. If this performance doesn't make him better known in America, what will?

If Owen has the most surprising part, Law has the most predictable one. Their characters pass each other on an escalator of nastiness, but Law still seems ineffectual. In his defense, he is at a strange disadvantage, having played the same part in both "I [Heart] Huckabees" and "Alfie." I might just be tired of his seduce-then-snivel routine. It's starting to feel like a shtick, and Law is left the one actor of the four who doesn't find a new side to show us.

Still, you see in Dan and Larry's little war not just a clash of men but a conflict of class. Dan seems rich where Larry lets his blue-collar roots show. And as a point of societal pride, neither wants to be outfoxed by the other. So in addition to the women being well-written creatures in their own right, they're also the vessels the two men use to penetrate each other.

Nichols and Marber ply their symbols with a light hand. The movie's use of tanks and aquariums, for one thing, is not as hokey as you would think. In fact, they offer a quaint echo of Nichols's "The Graduate," where they were used as more explicit prisons.

From Marber's fiercely polished writing, Nichols wrings every drop of acid, yet it's a show of the director's goodness that a movie fundamentally preoccupied with interpersonal ugliness is allowed to end on a convincing note of beauty. Nichols has often been too soft on both his characters and his movies' endings. But his gentle finale for once feels right. He tempers petulance and spite with what now feels like a revelatory ingredient: wisdom.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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