When perverted dermatologist Larry (Clive Owen) asks angelic stripper Alice (Natalie Portman) what she thinks of photograph Anna (Julia Roberts)’s pictures, she answers that “it’s a lie”, a “bunch of sad strangers photographed beautifully” so the art gallery crowd can feel better about it. The implication, it seems, is that “Closer” won’t go for that lie, that it will show sad people without making them beautiful. Whether the filmmakers succeed or not is ambiguous, and it’s not clear either whether this is even a worthy attempt.

The movie opens like a dreamy rom-com, with Alice walking in slow-motion through a crowd and, on the other side of the curb, failed novelist turned obituaries writer (“the Siberia of journalism”) Dan (Jude Law) walking towards her, also in slow-motion. Damien Rice’s wonderful Blower’s Daughter on the soundtrack and the way the two are looking at each other, you know it’s love at first sight. Their inevitable meet-cute (“Hello, stranger”) is rushed because of painful circumstances (which I won’t spoil), but it remains really romantic.

The next scene has Dan going to Anna’s studio to get photographed and seducing her without a second thought. That’s when we realize that Prince Charming is kind of a dick. He pretends to believe in love at first sight, but he doesn’t think it has to be exclusive. Making his actions even more questionable is the fact that he’s been going out with Alice for months when he makes a move on Anna. Are you confused? Well, that’s just the beginning: the whole film is about brutal time jumps (but more on that later).

So the idealized vision of love we see in romantic comedies is a big fat lie, in fact these characters cheat and deceive and hurt each other, and none of it is pretty. Ok. Mike Nichols’ film, based on the play by Patrick Marber (who adapted it for the screen himself), is indeed more straightforward and incisive than most Hollywood love stories, but it’s ultimately not as down and dirty as it could have been. Even if Julia Roberts tones down the star-wattage, it’s still hard to agree with her character when she says she’s “disgusting”. Likewise, even when they’re treating women like shit and being assholes, Jude Law and Clive Owen’s charisma makes it difficult to hate them. We would still rather be used and abused by these movie gods and goddesses than be comfortable and happy in real life!

Here’s the thing: when I go to the movies, I * want * to be lied to. I want to believe for two hours that everyone’s got a great face, that every conversation is full of wit and insight, that love always triumphs in the end, etc. If a film decides to be gritty and realistic instead, that’s interesting too, but you have to go all the way with it. “Closer” wants to have its cake and eat it too. It shows people being gorgeous and clever, but it doesn’t want you to feel good watching them. Yet these are still movie stars, so they can’t completely go to the dark side.

You can have Roberts saying “fuck” and talking about getting a shot in the face from Law (“It tastes like yours, but sweeter”), but you can’t show it. Portman can wiggle her thonged bum a little, but when Owen asks her to take everything off and bend over, the camera stays tastefully on his face. It’s not that I desperately want to see celebrity skin, but the film would have much more impact if it was willing to really make us feel how degrading the situations the characters get into can be.

I’m also not sure what the elliptic storytelling is supposed to accomplish. It might have worked on stage, but it feels odd here how months go by between each scene. Nichols says that “it’s all beautiful beginnings and miserable endings, somewhat like the way you experience your own adventures in love as you look back.” Maybe, but it makes it nearly impossible to empathize with the characters when we don’t know what they’ve been through.

What to make of “Closer” then? Good question. It’s got great dialogue and good acting, but none of it ends up feeling totally satisfying. It teases us a lot, but there’s no payoff. It’s too cold to be moving, but not cold enough to be shocking.