The film has just four characters: Dan (Jude Law), an obituaries writer who thinks he wants the truth; Alice (Natalie Portman), a stripper looking for someone to love and protect her; Anna (Julia Roberts), a photographer who always takes the safe option; and Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist and brutish hunter of intimacy. Over the course of the film, couples form by accident, are broken, reform...
On the surface it's simply a tale of bedhopping and deceit, but at the risk of sounding pretentious, it's a tale of modern love. One scene, in which Dan impersonates Anna on a chat room and talks dirty to Larry, is an interesting statement on how the internet affects romance. At the time of the film, Facebook was in its infancy, and now, social media is a phenomenon where we delude ourselves on Twitter by thinking we are actually connecting with each other. Larry feels more desire for the fake cyber 'Anna' than he does for the real one. It is interesting to wonder whether the internet would have played more of a part in the play had it been written now, but either way, it is a prescient look at how people would rather be anybody but themselves.
The careers of each characters are carefully chosen, as all involve a situation of intimacy where the job keeps you at a professional distance. The characters' lives are always superficial, though they consistently attempt to scratch beneath the surface; except Anna. Anna is probably the most underwritten character but then the whole point of the film is that people never get below the surface. As Larry points out, "Have you seen the human heart? It looks like a fist wrapped in blood". The settings are also frequently relevant, being places of observation: an art gallery, an aquarium, a theatre (tellingly the opera Cosi fan tutti, about two men who swap fiancees after a bet that women can never be truly faithful).
Because it's adapted from a play, it's a very talky film. The dialogue is great though; truth and lies are interwoven until you cannot tell the difference between sincere feelings and pretty lines. It's the paranoia that secretly lurks under every relationship: why is this person with me? Why am I with them? Of course, most couples don't operate on the level of deceit that these characters do but then, these people operate on default mode, aware of the impact of their actions but cannot help themselves. There is love there, certainly in Dan and Alice's case, but they can't quite believe it's real.
In some ways the film is a bit like Brief Encounter gone wrong. The characters meet each other by chance; the film starts with Dan spotting Alice out of a crowd of pedestrians. One of the taglines used in the film's trailer is "If you believe in love at first sight, you never stop looking" and Dan can't stop looking. If you can meet one stranger and fall in love, you can certainly meet another. Without wanting to muse too much, art relies on our desire to fall in love with strangers. Mr Darcy doesn't exist. Christian Gray doesn't exist. Yet women love the fantasy of them.
Portman is the stand-out amongst the cast. She plays the role of little girl lost beautifully, wearing a variety of hairstyles and wigs and yet she is very much herself. As the serial adulterer, Law is surprisingly sympathetic, coming across as more of a fantasist who loves falling in love. When he moves away from playing pretty boy roles, he's actually not a bad actor. Roberts gets a tough role and she is naturally outshone by the more extroverted characters but she comes across as sufficiently weak. The other characters all have a degree of romance in them, even brutish Larry, but Anna doesn't really seem to be searching for anything except maybe somebody to pity. Owen, who played Dan in the original stage production, looks suitably violent. Not literally but emotionally. All the characters are cynical but Larry is brutally cynical, even misogynistic.
The screenplay is almost identical to the stage play; a good thing as the play works. However the ending is different in the film. I did love the play's ending but it was a more contrived theatrical ending. This ending suits cinema better. For what is quite an artificial (as in not-realistic and theatrical) piece perfect for theatre, it holds up nicely on film. Director Mike Nichols also directed Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, another incisive and depressing study of relationships.