On paper, "Closer" looks like the movie of the year. Based on a popular play by Patrick Marber, who also penned the screen adaptation, it's directed by Mike Nichols, who's been exploring life, love, and sex in more or less smart, serious ways since starting his film career with pictures like "The Graduate" in the '60s and early '70s.
And what a cast! Julia Roberts, arguably the most appealing American actress of her generation, as a photographer who meets an unusual couple during a shoot. Natalie Portman, whose versatility rivals hers - compare Ms. Portman's sexy performance here with her unglamorous work in "Garden State" a few months ago - as a stripper starting a new life in London, where the story takes place.
Jude Law, also excellent in "Alfie" this season, as the writer who woos her. British star Clive Owen, of "The Bourne Identity" and "Gosford Park," as a physician who gets involved with all of them.
With all these talented folks behind it, why doesn't "Closer" quite hit the mark? The main reason is that it's too emotionally honest and psychologically dense for its own good. It's a movie that demands more than one viewing to absorb all its ideas and feelings. And it's just abrasive enough that many moviegoers will consider even a single sit-through uncomfortable.
The plot zigzags a lot, so I'll just describe its fundamental setup: There are two men, two women, and enough romantic yearning - sometimes lust, sometimes love, usually a combination of both - to keep their lives and libidos busy as the script shuffles and reshuffles their four-way relationship.
It's ironic that a movie like "I * Huckabees" conjures up more characters than it needs, while "Closer" could actually do with a few more - since it would be easier to identify with the film if its savagely strong passions were divided up among more people. The creators of "Closer" deserve praise for not exercising this option, though. It would make the movie simpler to parse, but it would also dilute the emotional claustrophobia that gives the plot and performances much of their squirm-inducing impact.
Mr. Marber's screenplay contains sexual dialogue that's relentlessly candid by Hollywood standards, especially during a computer chat between the men of the story, one of whom takes advantage of Internet anonymity to play a gender-bending practical joke. This said, the movie is often fascinating, but more as an anthropological study than a love-quadrangle tale; it resembles Mr. Nichols's fine "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" more than his less compelling "Carnal Knowledge," with which "Closer" is being compared most often.
Nichols's career hasn't consistently lived up to its early promise. He's been reaching a renewed artistic maturity in recent years, though, with such solid pictures as "The Birdcage" and "Primary Colors" reaching the wide screen.
"Closer" is a more modest achievement, but its acting alone makes it a probable player in the coming Oscar race.
• Rated R; contains nudity and sexually explicit dialogue.