Banal Knowledge 

Mike Nichols revisits the wasteland of romance.

This drama of our times plays out in assorted chic and bohemian quadrants of London, where Americans played by Natalie Portman and Julia Roberts stand waiting to bedevil stray bachelors in search of an obsession. Like heroines in some old fable, they are mostly passive, dancing attendance upon men who swoop into their lives, carry them off, and then disappear at a moment's notice.

London, which we are invited to see as the world capital of chance encounters, obligingly serves up their suitors in short order. Portman meets her first catch, an obituary writer and budding bad novelist (Jude Law), when she gets run over by a taxi. "Hi, stranger," she coos as he bends over her prone body. Roberts, an artsy photographer, meets her beau (a smoldering Clive Owen) when he mistakes her for a foul-mouthed nymphomaniac he met in a naughty chat room. But Law has eyes for Roberts, too, and promptly sets in motion a game of musical beds that grinds away for years.

Screenwriter Marber moves the story forward by focusing exclusively on the moments when characters enter each other's lives or announce their abrupt departures. He's determined not to let one normal, pretty happy day interrupt the constant hubbub of crisis. He may have a bleak point to make, but dramatically the technique doesn't work. People generally aren't at their best when coming on or blowing off, and since that's just about all we see, we never get to know or care about them. As a result, we're left thinking the whole pack of them would be better off alone.

Also adding to our emotional distance is Marber's decision to keep us guessing about chronology. It's only several moments into each sequence that we learn whether three weeks, six months or two years have passed since the previous scene. This parlor-trick cleverness is more suited to the stage and only underscores how little Marber has managed to prune theatrical affectation from the script. This is a film in which actors stare into the middle distance, moaning, "It's gone; we're not innocent anymore," or give vent to their passions by panting, "You be my whore, and I will pay you with your liberty!"

Clive Owen, especially, manages to inject some welcome vitality into such mannered pronouncements. He plays a dermatologist who, it seems, has pulled himself up out of the working class, and for this reason is allowed to blow his stack in a way that the other characters would consider vulgar. (There's a good deal of very British heavy breathing in this movie about the lower order's inexhaustible fund of rage, vindictiveness and sexual vigor.) None of the performers, however, comes off badly. Roberts, remarkably restrained, is the picture of quiet desperation. Law, too, succeeds as an effete bewildered by the magnitude of his own self-destructive passions. And throughout, Portman projects an alluring, Lolita-like inscrutability.

In "Carnal Knowledge," Nichols was working with a script by Jules Feiffer, whose buoyant cynicism was the perfect complement to Nichols' coolly objective style. The style is still intact, but it's not enough to sustain the movie on its own. Like its handsome cast, "Closer" looks great, but it fails to pull us in. ** S

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