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Nichols triumphs with ‘Closer’

Very dark story about love, deception and the hurt they cause. By John Hartl

“A good fight is never clean.”

So says Larry (Clive Owen), a London dermatologist who supposedly represents the voice of experience in Mike Nichols’ witty, spiky, rather nasty movie of Patrick Marber’s 1997 play, “Closer.” You can’t say you haven’t been warned.

The highly competitive Larry marries a photographer, Anna (Julia Roberts), who can’t stop loving the scampy obituary writer, Dan (Jude Law), who brought Larry and Anna together. Dan lives with a stripper/waitress, Alice (Natalie Portman), who is not immune to Larry’s charms.

“Meeting cute” takes on a menacing new meaning here. Dan runs into Alice when she’s hit by a car. Larry’s courtship of Anna begins with a practical joke that involves the e-mail equivalent of phone sex. Larry thinks he’s been communicating online with a woman, but it’s devious Dan in internet drag.

The foursome talk a lot about love, but intense, hurtful fighting is mostly what they’re good at. It’s never clean and it’s rarely nice. These people probably draw more blood than any quartet since, well, since Nichols made his movie debut with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” nearly four decades ago.

Just as Albee’s endlessly quotable zingers may have stayed with you longer than his plot contrivances and much-debated finale, it’s Marber’s zesty dialogue, much of it lifted directly from the play, that makes the strongest impression here. Little wonder that the tangy moments survived: Marber gets sole credit for the screenplay.

The four actors have rarely been better, though Owen, who played Dan in the original London stage production, stands out in what may be the best-written role. Larry is especially adept at check-mating Dan and out-guessing Anna, and Owen rules the screen whenever Larry’s on top.

But the other actors don’t exactly slip into submission. Larry may think that Anna is amused by “all my nasty habits,” but he’s in the process of losing her, and Roberts does a persuasive job of establishing Anna’s yearning for something else. Dan is also easy to underestimate; there’s more than a touch of Law’s “Alfie” in this performance.

The only near-victim is Alice, whose life provides much of the material for the novel Dan is writing, but Portman brings some toughness to the role. She did her most expressive work to date as the young widow who shelters Law’s Civil War deserter in “Cold Mountain,” and she tops it here. (Is there something about working with Law that brings out the best in this actress, who seems so wooden in the “Star Wars” movies?)

Four characters. A limited number of locations. A narrow range of emotions. It shouldn’t work on film. Yet Nichols is just as skillful at transforming this play as he was with the more obviously cinematic “Angels in America.” And he does it all without forcing us to warm to these characters, who make the George and Martha of “Virginia Woolf” seem cuddly.

Selfishness, childishness and oneupsmanship drive much of their behavior, especially between the two men. Nichols and his actors avoid none of it, they offer no apologies, and they can’t take their eyes off the ongoing train wreck of these lives.