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How to begin? Let's start with Natalie Portman, who showed such sweet promise in Beautiful Girls, then took a very long trip to Dullsville by playing Queen Amidala in the second Star Wars trilogy. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm happy to report that Portman's back, with a vengeance. In Closer, Mike Nichols' bitterly unromantic comedy about sexual jealousy, she plays Alice, a stripper who bares her soul as easily as she bares her body. (Or does she?) And not only does Portman act circles around Julia Roberts, playing a photographer who bares other people's souls instead of her own, she holds the camera better, her round moon of a face reflecting the light of a thousand distant suns. What we have here are two of the most beautiful women in the world going at each other like a pair of alley cats.

No, I take that back. They don't go at each other like alley cats, but they each have a certain feline grace, an ability to get men howling like dogs. Adapted from a stage play by Patrick Marber, Closer features a pair of intersecting love triangles, two couples that become so intimately bound together after an adulterous affair that they might as well be sleeping in the same bed, Ã la Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. But it's not the women who lose their cool. (They lose their hearts but not their cool.) It's the men who insist on knowing every last detail about their woman's time with another man. "Is he a good fuck?" Clive Owen's Larry, a skin-deep dermatologist, asks Roberts' Anna after picking up the scent of illicit sex from the way she welcomes him home from a business trip. "Better than me?"

Considering that the man in question, an obit writer who's published a novel, is played by Jude Law, one might expect the answer to be yes. But you get the impression while watching Closer that none of these people are as good in the sack as they like to think they are. They've got all the right body parts except for hearts. Of course, it's kind of hard to tell since the movie contains no sex scenes. The closest it gets, in fact, is a computer chat between Larry and Law's Dan, posing as Anna. Here, the men have dispensed with the women altogether, one screwing the other while himself being screwed over. The idea that two guys might join forces in the battle of the sexes isn't even considered a possibility in Closer, where it's every man for himself and every woman for herself, and may the worst person win.

Owen has an advantage over the other actors in Closer: He actually seems as cynical as the character he's playing. It's in his face, which looks like it hasn't been pampered enough, if at all. It's in his voice, which hits Shakespearean heights and depths. And it's in Croupier, where he played a casino dealer who gambled away his integrity. The other actors have spent most of their careers endearing themselves to us - especially Roberts, who isn't allowed to unleash that smile of hers. I said that Portman acts circles around her, and maybe she does, but maybe it's Alice who acts circles around Anna. Whichever it is, playing someone who would carry on an affair with another man for an entire year brings out something new in America's sweetheart, turns those enormous eyes into dark pools of mystery and regret.

That leaves Law, who's less charming here than he was in Alfie (I should certainly hope so) but is nevertheless charming enough to sweep a couple of thoroughbreds off their feet. "I don't kiss strange men," Anna says when Dan makes a pass during the photo shoot for his book jacket. "Neither do I," Dan says, and somehow that's enough to launch them on their affair, most of which we aren't privy to. Closer isn't interested in the muddled middle of relationships. It's interested in the hopeful beginnings, the hopeless endings, when love takes the form of a competitive sport, a blood sport. "Thank you for your honesty," Larry tells Anna after she's revealed everything about her affair with Dan, including the taste of his precious bodily fluids. "Now fuck off and die, you fucked-up slag!"

Such language! Closer contains more f-words than the average porn flick, and for once they have some power, if only because they're uttered by major stars, whom we don't expect to have potty mouths. The movie could be accused of trawling the depths of depravity, although some critics have accused it of trawling the shallows of depravity, but compared to what, I wonder. Most Hollywood movies, when they tackle sex head-on, tend to get bogged down in literary pretension (Henry and June) or clogged up with naughty bits (Showgirls). And they tend to wind up with NC-17 ratings. Closer realizes that it's not so much what we do in bed as what we think and feel and say about what we do in bed. For all their lies, these battle-weary veterans remain foolishly committed to the truth.

And so does Nichols, who guides the movie with a firm yet gentle hand, avoiding the icy detachment that leached all the blood out of, say, In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute's similarly themed anatomy lesson. Though arranged into one-on-one set pieces that still feel a little stage bound, Closer has real meat on its bones. The performances feel lived in, and the characters, though gorgeous beyond belief, seem painfully familiar. We've all found ourselves on one side or the other of an adulterous affair from time to time, and we've behaved with the same combination of passion and dispassion, rage and nonchalance. "This will hurt," Dan tells Alice before revealing his love for Anna. Seemingly free of emotion, he could be a doctor about to administer a shot. And like any brave patient, Alice holds back the tears as long as she can.

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