Upmarket, Tastefully Dirty And Deeply Uninvolving

God having lavished so much on the exterior, Natalie Portman doesn’t deserve an inner life. Only a supernal emptiness could do her justice, and might spare her from the ravages visited on her one true precedent, the young Liz Taylor, a woman smart enough to seek revenge on her own God-given perfection. Ms. Portman is smart, of course, but Ivy League smart-which is to say, as careful of her future as of her milkmaid complexion. She’s neither entirely believable, nor entirely unbelievable, as the young stripper-waif “Alice”- if that is your real name-in the recent adult sex drama Closer, which has just appeared on DVD. Closer is a tastefully dirty film adaptation by Patrick Marber of his own play, directed by Mike Nichols; and while there certainly have been lesser Blockbuster nights, an unsettling aura of upmarket expertise hovers over the whole project. This is Carnal Knowledge cleansed of its wounding asperity and reshot as an extended ad for $9 mineral water. Well, what’s not to enjoy?

To begin, there’s the struggle of genuine emotion against the cauterizing power of iconic faces. How much energy is spent making film stars seem utterly inhuman-inhumanly beautiful, relaxed and clever-only to expend that much more energy making them seem, when they attach to an indie-style feature, plausibly ordinary? When we first meet Jude Law (he who rose Venus-like from the spume in The Talented Mr. Ripley, only to ruin my marriage and everyone else’s), his Dan is meant to be a modest schlub, a lifer at a London paper who writes and edits the obituaries. (“This is me,” he says to Alice when they arrive at his workplace, a dour glass-skinned high-rise.) The early dialogue is sharp and promising, as Dan and Alice meet and banter and fall in love. We leap forward in time by a year, and discover that Dan has cannibalized the story of Alice’s life as a New York stripper for his first novel. Sitting for the book-jacket portrait, he falls immediately in love with Anna, his photographer. As Anna, the arty portraitist, Julia Roberts starts slowly-she’s the living embodiment of a certain style of knit-browed overconcern Hollywood stars fall back on, especially when forced to act with Brits-but she gathers a serious head of steam, and by the credits has delivered a fine performance.

From its tantalizing beginning, Closer turns into a four-part roundelay vaguely in the Neil LaBute mode, in which vengeful sex is had by all, with all, and in virtually every possible config. When the movie wears its own true colors, it works nicely-that is, when Closer is sexy and cold and arch, and people approach one another as virtual strangers. And then there’s Clive Owen. With his faceful of sebaceous stubble, Mr. Owen is the one element of true danger in Closer, and all of its desperation and rage comes from his turn as a cockney made good as a dermatologist. (Clive Owen is the one man since Sean Connery born to play 007, but no doubt Byzantine double-dealing in the front office will prevent it from ever happening.) Mr. Owen’s Larry could split you down the middle with a look … or will he himself break apart? Unlike his co-stars, who must soldier admirably against their own prettiness, Mr. Owen is that rare beautiful man who’s more than once suspected he’s butt-ugly. No disbelief here suspended: Mr. Owen’s Larry is a man who likes strippers, prostitutes and whatever trade he can scare up on the Net. The most vicious dialogue is given to Mr. Owen’s mouth to spit, and spit it does. “She has the moronic beauty of youth,” he says, dismissing Alice, who he will later come to beg for sexual absolution. “Have you ever seen a human heart?” he asks Dan. “It looks like a fist wrapped in blood.”

Well, except when it’s pumping $9 water. Would that this were Clive Owen’s movie, a bitter meditation on the cowardly and wretched things people do to one other. But it’s the movie of the great toy beauty, Natalie Portman. As a sex worker who may be fabricating her entire past, she’s meant to be cheeky and wounded, an obscure object of desire, and the key to Dan’s every happiness. Ms. Portman is not at all a bad actress, but she may be too inviolably flawless. When she spits her lines back at Mr. Owen-“When I was in flares you were in nappies.” “My nappies were flared”-we sense behind them a life left untouched by sleaze. So it is with Closer, a quiet, gelid, murmuring and deeply uninvolving movie, an utter pleasure to watch-and then forget.