Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Truthful lips endure for ever, but a lying tongue is but for a moment.
and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
Director Mike Nichols returns to similar territory to that in his Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? in this scathing film set in London. Dan (Jude Law), an aspiring novelist stuck with writing obituaries for a London newspaper, comes to the rescue of Alice (Natalie Portman), a just-arrived New Yorker felled by a car. Unaccustomed to England’s left-of-the road driving, she is looking the wrong way when she steps out into the street. Dan takes her to the hospital for treatment of her minor injury, flirting with her in the waiting room as he learns that she is a stripper who left America in order to rid herself of a boyfriend.
The film jumps ahead in time, as it does throughout in order to show the death and birth of romantic entanglements. Dan, now about to be published, has been living with Alice for several years. He is at the photographic studio of Anna (Julia Roberts) where he sits for a portrait that will be used on the novel’s dust jacket. He flirts with her, and when Alice realizes what has been going on, she stays to talk with Anna, demanding that a portrait be made of her face also.
The cynical Dan enjoys posing on the Internet as a love hungry woman. He arouses the passion of Larry (Clive Owen), a dermatologist who, apparently between patient consultations, slips into his private office to indulge his sexual fantasies via his computer. Aroused by a hot, live exchange with Dan, he agrees to meet at the aquarium for what he expects to be a face-to-face encounter. Armed with a description of Anna, who had told Dan that she enjoys going to the aquarium, Larry sits down until he spots her. She, of course, is baffled by his familiar, sexy approach to her—yet despite Larry’s mistake, she begins a relationship with him. Dan had intended this to be a revenge prank on Anna in the hope of embarrassing her, but his scheme backfires
More jumping ahead in time when the couples—Anna and Larry, Alice and Dan—are breaking up but beginning anew with each other—Anna and Dan coupling, and Alice and Larry entering into a relationship. We never see the middle part, the day in and day out squabbles, adjustments and compromises that two people must make. Instead, we are let in on break-ups and beginnings. Three of the characters are difficult, if not impossible to like, especially the two men who play mind games with each other and with the women. They prate away about sex and truth, when in reality truth is a weapon that they, and particularly Dan, use to hurt, humiliate, or wreak revenge. A measure of Dan, and the film’s, cynicism is captured by his words to Anna while she is getting him to sign their divorce paper, “Why not lie? It’s the currency of the world.”
Perhaps only Natalie Portman’s Alice will ever mature into a decent human being, but then at the end we learn that Alice has not been using her real name. As she prepares to leave London we see, in a park where there is a memorial dedicated to ordinary people who gave their lives for others, where “Alice” came from. Filled with foul language uttered by self-centered characters, Mike Nichols’ film is not for everyone—nor is it very satisfying. Much of the fault lies with screenwriter Patrick Marber’s adaptation of his rather soulless, cynical play. Dan especially would not have a clue as to what the writers of Scripture mean by truth, especially of its liberating power as claimed by the Jesus of John’s gospel. Dan would prefer to see both Larry and “Alice” enslaved and hurt by truth, rather than freed by it. He is the hollow person whose words and acts are best described by another Biblical author as “empty.” The same might be true for Mr. Marber.