by Patrick Marber
The book, the play
You've heard of the "sexual revolution" and the liberation of moral codes? Mike Nichols, perhaps one of the most tasteful and effective directors around, exploits what Kinsey might have set in motion with a brilliant set of actors and a script by Patrick Marber whose play and the mindset of his script shows an example of social liberality in all its layers of sick compulsion. Why Nichols adopted it is a question his film raises like a recurring stroke of creative dissolution. Maybe its the lure of inflammatory dialogue that leaves emotion in a pile of ashes.
On the streets of modern-day London, two very attractive people are singled out from the swarming mass walking toward one another. She, Alice (Natalie Portman) gets hit by car, he, Dan (Jude Law) rushes her to the hospital. She likes him, he likes her. An attraction is born. She's a temporarily retired stripper on an extended visit from New York, currently a waitress. He's a journalist who writes obituaries for a local paper but is a closet novelist. She thinks he should spend more of his time out, working on his novel. Fadeout.
Years later, he's being photographed by Anna (Julia Roberts) in her apartment studio for the back cover of his newly published novel. Sparks fly, he admits to living with Alice but comes on like the libertine that he is. Anna responds but has difficulty with the two-timing aspects of an attraction she can't subdue. To make matters worse, Alice shows up to meet Dan and winds up as a camera subject for Anna's lens and an object of interest for her mind.
Now, here's where it gets a little sick. Dan, unhappy about being rebuffed (at least for the time being) goes online to a chat room and meets Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist in scrubs and with a fast, smutty line. Dan poses as a lascivious slut and invites Larry to meet in real life at the Acquarium, a place Anna has told him she frequents. Sure enough, he shows up and Anna is there. After a brisk bit of repartee, Anna and Larry are hooked up. End of story? Not on your life. We're only getting started.
Larry meets Alice at Anna's art show, which includes the closeup study of Alice. It's at a time when Larry is losing interest in Alice. Alice is devastated and vulnerable when Dan lays this on her. Alice leaves and Dan is free to win Alice over. End of story? No, we're only about midway. There's the Larry-Alice connection, and much, much more. Enough to ask yourself if this is your idea of closeness or repulsiveness.
Oh, yes, there's plenty of onscreen lust and, if not graphic sex, at least strongly suggested bedsheet rhythm. But that's only peripheral to what's really going on, which is a gotcha' game in which the most devious, passionless and duplicitous has the advantage. As said, the acting is superb (Portman is standout), the casting astute, and the direction intelligent. Perhaps Nichol's film is a web of sticky depravity, and not so tasteful or positively compelling, but it is intelligent in style and dialogue.
Its life expectancy will rest on that. It sure won't be for the emotional content or its grasp on morality.