Reekingly urbane Mike Nichols chamber piece, prone to be seen as a long-distance companion to his Carnal Knowledge in its dirty talk and its romantic disillusion. The quartet of players -- two American females, a stripper (but of course) and a portrait photographer, and two British males, an obituarist and a dermatologist -- align and realign over an extended period of time. (The title is presumably to be pronounced with a soft s, synonym of "nearer," not a hard s, synonym of Mariano Rivera.) A lot of important events transpire off-screen -- in between scenes, in the blink of an eye -- and it would not be amiss to say that the most interesting parts of the film are the skips. Nor would it be amiss to point out that these are common devices in theater, where indeed the film originated. While the action has, as they say, been "opened up," the brittle dialogue still echoes of the stage. (Patrick Marber adapted his own play.) Clive Owen, normally a bit of a Gloomy Gus, is surprisingly the liveliest member of the ensemble; and Julia Roberts, hardly less surprisingly, is the most restrained, the most recessed. (She nevertheless remains the gracious recipient of the contractually required line: "You're beautiful.") Natalie Portman and Jude Law occupy the middle ground, fighting uphill battles to humanize their porcelain perfection. 2004.

Duncan Shepherd

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