An inevitable, unfair knock on Closer is going to be an audience lament that they weren’t able to care about any of the characters.

Julia Roberts? She’s that classic, Oscar-winning beauty, not a duplicitous photographer whose bed hopping doesn’t even go unchecked by a wedding ring.

Jude Law? He’s that pretty British fellow, the one who’s so hot right now. Why would he want to play a callous writer so uninspired that he lifts the plot for his failed novel from his jilted lover?

Natalie Portman? Why, she’s always so pixie-like in haircut, spirit and smile. How could she keep futilely throwing herself back at that evil, evil man? And she would never, never be a stripper.

Clive Owen? Um, who’s Clive Owen, again?

He’s the actor (who tried hard for not much in last summer’s King Arthur) leaving not so much an indelible impression but a vicious purple-and-yellow shiner with his brutally forceful performance as a devious dermatologist who’s thin- and thick-skinned.

His Larry moves from an aloof cyber-chatting clod to a masterful manipulator over the course of the film, and it’s Owen’s finest work yet.

Bruising metaphors are perfect, considering the emotional punches thrown in Mike Nichols’ brilliant film based on Patrick Marber’s play (Marber adapted his own work for the screen.)

Through cutting words and actions, this foursome (coupled, uncoupled and re-coupled over the course of several years) elbows each other in the face with general disdain, clambering as they do to the top of the sexual-supremacy pile.

It’s a love story, but an uncomfortably in-your-face one that the audience watches as though it were slowing past an off-the-road car wreck. We gape in endless fascination, in the need to know what’s happening. But at the same time, we’re glad it’s not us.

The irony of Closer‘s title is not playful, it’s savage, and the content is equally so, with harsh, ugly discourse reminiscent of the great early films of Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) before he softened into repetition.

Unlike LaBute’s more-recent films, there is an element of unpredictability in Closer, a sexual suspense of sorts with more rewards on multiple viewings.

The initial pairings in the film are Dan-Alice (Law-Portman, meeting cute in a set-up deceptively like Before Sunrise and a sharp variation on Portman’s other doctor’s-office flirtation scene in Garden State) and Larry-Anna (Owen-Roberts, whose meeting is arranged by a wildly funny marriage of bad intent and technology that Nichols films with excellent comic camera timing).

To give away much more than that would ruin the intensity of the shell game. That there are numerous adulterous flings isn’t the question, it’s how far the subsequent deception goes for both the characters creating it and responding to it. Nichols carefully pulls back his curtains without being obvious about the subversion of the film’s purported power roles and narrative expectations.

A chamber piece, Closer is so well acted on almost all of its fronts that it loses nothing in translation to the screen. Only Roberts feels out of her element, seeming neither nasty nor naïve enough at the crucial moments.

Law’s Dan is a junkie addicted to the thrilling throes of early love who suffers a wounding comedown during the in-between. He’s the best approximation of a villain — although, depending on your love life experience, any character could be the evil one. This is why the film is so great.

And even for Portman fans, it’s high time to admit the ever-smiling goodie-two-shoes was a role she needed to ditch. She does it here, not by playing a sexed-up tramp, but a complicated character, the full measure of which doesn’t come through until the film’s fantastic final moment.

Closer casts a hard-light glow on the warts of love, not a soft-focus glow on its passion. It stuns more with the stark thematic truth that flies in the face of what we’ve come to expect in movies that discuss relationships than with its language or content. It’s one of the year’s best.