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Beautiful people being bad

Movies that use sex for shock value have existed since women were allowed on the screen -- maybe even before that. And they're still readily available, in their own section situated in the back of the video store with a drawn curtain to keep them separated. But with pornography practically mainstream now, a couple of girls kissing or a flash of genitalia hardly gets audiences over the age of 13 to raise their eyebrows.

Surely, no one should understand this better than director Mike Nichols. After all, he took full advantage of the Puritanical outlook on sex by Americans circa 1972 to elevate nothing more than a decent film, The Graduate, into a pop cultural milestone destined to last for generations.

So in Nichols' latest film, Closer, he uses the presence of love to raise the stakes. A little potty-mouth sex talk and everyday infidelities are barely enough to cause us to blink. However, when the participants first profess their love for one another and then continue to behave in this amoral manner, we at least stop to take notice.

The problem is that for all the declarations of love, it always seems more like a construct than reality. Characters are placed in love in order to position one-half of the pair optimally to inflict maximum emotional damage on the other. In fact, what caused the characters to fall in love is never actually shown because the movie regularly skips over large stretches of time. Instead, we simply have to accept that some deep emotional connection formed between the current couplings, even though it appears far more likely that a quartet of beautiful people (Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen) are simply exchanging one pretty face for another when they feel a tinge of boredom.

The film plays more like a highlight reel rather than a coherent story. The happy times are fast-forwarded through, and only at the points where some character has reached a new nadir in his or her romantic life do we pause for a closer examination. The individual pieces wouldn't even connect together except that each part is prefaced by a recap of which lover was last jilted. While this makes it easy to tell the story, the fact that all the details are omitted leaves all of the characters superficial. It feels much like hearing a story second-hand about someone you've never actually met. When bad things happen to the stranger, it elicits some mild sympathy, but mostly you don't care.

This isn't to say that the pieces themselves aren't entertaining. At times, the dialogue sounds a bit too clever, almost like the sentences were planned beforehand. But it does succeed at times, namely when Clive Owen finds himself on screen. Owen has long since proved himself capable of communicating emotions and thoughts using few words. This time he's also given words to combine with those burning glares, and a little British slang never hurt anyone looking for added effect when cursing someone out. He's introduced as affable and easy-going, but takes little time to transform into a vindictive sadist. Armed with his natural intense stare, he portrays the character with little difficulty.

Unfortunately, Owen's convincing turn is balanced by an uninspiring performance from Natalie Portman. While Portman is attractive, pedophiliacs would be the only ones to ever describe her as sexy. She needs quite a bit more seasoning before she can pull off the seductress role, and the platinum wig and g-string do nothing to change this fact.

Given its timing, one can reasonably assume that the actors and filmmakers are grasping for Oscar nominations. Even in a historically bad year for movies, there's little here worth considering. Those who maintain faith in the Academy Awards can only hope that a repeat of the Erin Brockovich-fiasco can be averted.

Stars: 2.5 out of 5