Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, and Jude Law in CloserCLOSER

In Mike Nichols' adaptation of Patrick Marber's play Closer, we are first introduced to Dan (Jude Law) and Alice (Natalie Portman). He's an obit writer; she's a former stripper.

They fall in love. When we next see Dan, he's being professionally photographed by Anna (Julia Roberts), with whom he shares a very unprofessional kiss. Anna rebuffs him, and, in mock-retalliation, Dan assumes her name while in a chat room with Larry (Clive Owen), a doctor eagerly awaiting a sexual liaison with this online "Anna." Dan sets up a fake rendezvous at an aquarium, and - wouldn't you know it! - the real Anna happens to be there. Larry and Anna fall in love. Before the film's end, both couples will have swapped partners, there will be confrontations between Anna and Alice, and Alice and Larry, and Larry and Dan, and at the closing curtain - er ... the closing credits - everyone will wind up unhappier but wiser, unless they were completely amoral to begin with (I think two of the characters might qualify), in which case they're actually happier.

With all this going on, is it ridiculous to ask that the movie be more fun than it actually is?

Truth-in-journalism time: I love filmed plays. I know they're generally uncinematic as hell, but they're the only true marriage of my biggest artistic passions - theatre and movies - and Closer even has the benefit of being helmed by Mike Nichols, who has directed three of the all-time great theatrical adaptations: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Wit, and Angels in America. (Four, if you include The Birdcage.) And Nichols directs the proceedings with verve and confidence. As usual, he lets his camera linger on his actors, holding their onscreen reactions longer than directors usually would, and in long, unbroken takes that cause performers to either flourish or wilt; think back to Emma Thompson in Wit, or the ensembles of Virginia Woolf or Angels, and you'll see that Nichols allows his performers to establish a rhythm within their scenes, which oftentimes brings out the best in them. (He doesn't leave the quality of performance to his film editors.)

Nichols' work is topnotch throughout, but two elements keep Closer from achieving greatness: The screenplay, despite some nasty dialogue, is a little weak, and the actors, aside from Clive Owen, are a little weak, too.

On a technical level, the script, which Marber himself adapted, is supremely clever. Whenever a new scene begins, we aren't informed about how much time has elapsed until a specific line of dialogue clues us in, and this gives every new sequence elements of anticipation and surprise; it's a terrific theatrical conceit that Nichols pulls off like a master. But Marber's confrontations - at least as presented here - aren't nearly as incendiary as everyone involved seems to think. (The film's underlying hook is: "Come watch Julia and Natalie talk dirty!") Just about every scene in Closer boils down to one person entering a room completely in love, followed by someone telling them the awful truth about who's-screwing-whom, and that first person winding up miserable. The repetition of these balls-out-honest conversations - always one-on-one, as in a play - makes the script sadly predictable; like an M. Night Shymalan picture, you spend the film's running length waiting for the other shoe(s) to drop. (And you end up wishing that Marber had involved his characters in a few same-sex couplings, just to add some surprise and break the tedium a bit.)

It would be wonderful to say that, even working with somewhat tiresome material, the cast came through, but Clive Owen - devastatingly insidious and self-satisfied - is the only performer who thrives. The others have their moments, but Roberts too often falls back on her angry-in-a-romantic-comedy shtick, Portman's delicate radiance doesn't fit with the conception of Alice, and Law seems confused, as if someone whispered to him, "Your character is actually a loser" halfway through shooting and he no longer knew how to play the role - it's telling that all three are at their very worst when acting opposite Clive Owen; performance-wise, he mops the floor with every one of them. Closer is never out-and-out bad, and, thanks to Nichols, it's never dull (though try telling that to the guy sitting behind me who snored through the entire film). Yet it's still monotonous and, Owen excepted, indifferently acted, and a real bummer for those of us jonesing for another sensational play adaptation.


Catalina Sandino Moreno in Maria Full of GraceMARIA FULL OF GRACE

For the first 40 minutes of the new-to-video-and-DVD release Maria Full of Grace, you might find yourself thinking, "This is all very nice, but what's the hubbub about?" Maria was one of the top-draw art-house experiences of the summer - it concerns a young Colombian woman (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who, for financial reasons, becomes a drug mule, carrying balloons filled with drugs into America via her stomach - yet for its first two-thirds of an hour the film looks like your generic indie: basic, hand-held camera shots, inexperienced actors, dialogue aiming for so-simple-it's-profound that doesn't quite get there. There's nothing overtly wrong with Maria, but it's just a trifle ... bland.

That feeling does not last. At the 40-minute mark, the movie's dry, unshowy realism has proven to be Maria's trump card. This film is going to be matter-of-fact, damn it, and nothing that happens in Maria - events include an airport interrogation, a drug overdose, a possible murder, the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of drugs, and a pregnancy held in the balance - is going to be treated with less-than-unflinching realism. As a cinematic work, and without any eye-catching cinematic tricks, writer-director Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace proves to be positively inspiring, a great reminder of the natural pull that a marvelous story can have on an audience. The film is "indie" in the best possible sense; Marston had an important (and, it must be added, entertaining) story to tell, and despite a minimal budget and mostly inexperienced actors, he's going to tell it, simply and honestly and without fuss. Like so many of the year's best films, Maria Full of Grace is a labor of love that doesn't feel the slightest bit laborious.

The film is also blessed with an astonishing leading performer. For a great deal of Maria's running length, you marvel at Moreno's stoicism; despite that ravishingly pretty face and her naturalistic acting style, Moreno's Maria is so cool a cucumber that she seems a bit inhuman. But you soon realize that this is part of Marston's conception of Maria; the plot - the film itself - wouldn't work if Maria wasn't so tough, and Moreno has the good sense to play the character as a tough cookie who, in private, is just a mass of crumbs. Maria is forced to endure all manner of humiliations through the course of the movie, yet Moreno's style is so simple and direct that when Maria finally does break down, the impact is shattering. (Moreno, an acting novice, pulls off a performance that would snare her an Oscar if played by Kirsten Dunst or Scarlett Johansson; let's hope for at least a nomination here.) Maria Full of Grace never made it to our area during its summertime run; don't let the chance to see it escape you now.

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