Imagine taking the best parts of several years of daytime soap opera and condensing it into ninety minutes with an R-rating and better acting. Still, the bottom line in this morality play is to be prepared for the answer when you ask the question.
Daniel (Jude Law) is an old-fashioned English romantic smitten with a girl who reveals herself as Alice (Natalie Portman), whom he would be perfectly happy with if he hadn?t met a photographer named Anna (Julia Roberts) and became obsessed with her as well. A bit of revenge on Dan?s part for being spurned then lures in alpha-male Larry (Clive Owen) to square off the triangle. What follows is the slow burn of several years in the lives of these consenting adults as they each manipulate the other to get what they think they want and take their thoughtless revenge for every perceived slight.
Starting out as almost a romantic comedy, the film quickly reveals itself to be a rotten core wrapped within a pretty piece of fruit. Skipping months at a time, the plot jumps from triumph to loss as all the major players not only reveal themselves to be human but oddly despicable if not irredeemable; it?s very hard to feel anything sympathetic for what these characters have suffered because of what they have done or allowed. Still, in spite of it all, it?s hard not to watch beautiful and convincing people implode of their own volition, but shouldn?t this all be repulsive and horrible to enjoy?
Aside from the brief opening segment, there is little joy to be had in this film. Yes, it is intriguing, but it?s also intentionally devoid of Hollywood happiness to contrast the film?s darkness. Each scene begins with a presumably gleeful couple that quickly dissolves into guilt and flashback; no one misses an opportunity to take details away from the other to arm themselves with. Directed by Mike Nichols, the screenplay is actually based on a stage play, but the real question is why anyone would want to create something so morally sick to stand in for entertainment?
Participants in the film?s making contributed plenty of themselves to make it work. Julia Roberts looks more haunted and guilty than usual in contrast to Jude Law?s almost foppish behavior when he can?t have everything he wants. Clive Owen shows more intensity in every scene here than in all of King Arthur (stop with the heroes; this man needs to play a villain!), but it is Natalie Portman?s unfeeling youthfulness that comes off as the most coldly adult and that acts as the final nail in her coffin of innocence. These are the beautiful people you thought you wanted to know intimately but will likely find that you?ll wish you hadn?t, especially where it comes to sex.
To be fair, the film is a refreshing backlash against the typical romantic comedy where ??happily ever after?? is just a short run through an airport terminal and a heartfelt speech on a runway away. To a happy couple, this kind of film may be more enjoyable on a level where they can safely look down from, but it could also be a sad and lonely confirmation to those still seeking someone to love. In the end, is a lie preferable and necessary to keeping a relationship happy than absolute honesty? If it?s the naked truth you must know, this story warns to be prepared for worse than you imagined.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)