Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Julia Roberts, and Clive Owen. Rated 14A.

"This is going to hurt," says Dan, a roguish writer played by Jude Law, as a preamble to breaking up with one of the two women he yo-yos between in Closer. The most painful thing about the line is the way Law says it: in a casual hurry, as someone else would say, "This'll make you laugh."

If Dan doesn't feel the pain of others, he is nonetheless drawn to people who have plenty of it. The London-set film, directed with surgical precision by Mike Nichols, begins with his encounter with a beautiful young American exstripper called Alice (Natalie Portman) and then jumps a full 12 months. (The tale sometimes moves in days, sometimes years, with little but dialogue to tell us which.)

Dan, an obituary editor at an English newspaper, embarks on a livelier career as a novelist, and Anna, the photographer assigned by his publisher, turns out to look a lot like Julia Roberts. He has long since moved in with Alice but immediately strikes sparks with the new woman. Both prey, in a way, on the offbeat energy of Alice--Dan in his fiction, and Anna in her Richard Avedon--like black-and-white portraits.

Not willing to leave bad enough alone, Danny boy also instigates a rendezvous between Anna and Larry, a randy dermatologist played by Clive Owen, the movie's least-known entity and its principal source of power. This manoeuvre, thanks to some Internet confusion, is one of several coincidence-laden implausibilities that threaten to unravel Patrick Marber's script, adapted from his own stage play of the same name. In the early going, his dialogue is likewise riddled with stale jokes and bald assertions. "I'm a waif," Alice labels herself, right at the start--and damned if she isn't right.

The film traffics in the cold and the obvious, both visually and in its relentless flow of words. But once you get used to its elliptical rhythms, it accumulates force, mainly as an examination of emotional truth and the extent to which people will go to get it, avoid it, or use it against others.

Nichols, who mined related depths of nonintimate intimacy in Carnal Knowledge and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, does a remarkable job of pulling together seemingly disparate acting styles. (He's helped by cleverly used classical music, bossa nova, and the songs of Damien Rice.) The drawn-looking Roberts may have the least to draw on, but she uses the anger-beneath-the-surface of her own persona to good effect, especially in simmering scenes with the glowering, volatile Owen, who looks like he could take you out with his stubble alone.

Law offers a refinement of the ambiguous cad he played in Alfie and several other films, and he makes a good stab at filling in the blank bits between personality swings that sometimes seem more narratively convenient than organic. And connecting them all is Portman's protean work as a stripper-turned-wise-woman (and back again). I'm not sure the final twist, involving Alice's identity and possible future, is really that much of a payoff. But after her equally affecting work in this year's Garden State, it might be time for someone to warn Portman away from meeting strange men in hospital waiting rooms.