Director: Mike Nichols
Writer: Patrick Marber, based on his play
Stars: Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Clive Owen, Julia Roberts
The Story: Two couples in contemporary London engage in escalating games of emotional brutality, crossing and double-crossing each other over the course of several years.
How it Came to be Underrated: This was one of those movies that got a huge build-up as an Oscar contender, then got quickly decimated by negative reviews. It’s not perfect, but it’s very powerful and well-worth seeing. Unfortunately, there’s no wiggle room these days: either you blow everybody away or you sink like a stone.
Why It’s (Almost) Great:
- I would daresay that this film is the career-best performance for all four of its leads. Of course, that’s not saying much, since Law, Portman and Owen have a serious addiction to underwhelming scripts, and Roberts, is, you know, Roberts. Clearly all four handed themselves and their personas over to Nichols with total abandon, and he relishes the chance to strip these big stars of their defenses, their vanities and even, in the best possible way, their dignity. Roberts famously insisted that her role in Stepmom be made nicer because “people expect Julia Roberts to act a certain way.” But here, in Nichols’s hands, she’s finally willing to be an actor, not a star.
- Of the four, the youngest steals the show. I had guessed that Portman was destined to be a mega-star with her great pre-teen performance in Beautiful Girls, but then winced as she struggled to find roles that suited her over the years. Owen and Law are both known for their intense stares, but they more than meet their match in Portman, who can drown them both in her bottomless glares of judgment.
- I think this movie garnered so much negativity because of its best quality: It’s embarrassing. It’s so intense it makes you squirm. I’m sure this was true onstage, but it’s magnified ten times on screen, with tight close-ups on famous faces. There’s a jaw-dropping cross-cut scene where Owen unwittingly engages in cyber-sex with Law that manages to be just as shocking today as Nichols’s ’60 films were then.
- This movie completes a thematic trilogy with two much-earlier Nichols films, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Carnal Knowledge. All three are sharp, spare, simple movies about a pair of couples that tear each other to shreds.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: This was part of brief Nichols renaissance along with his brilliant HBO miniseries adapation of another contemporary stage classic, Angels in America, which I can’t recommend highly enough.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD only.
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