Julia Roberts | PR Chaos | Martha Stewart | Rupert Murdoch

Julia Roberts Gets 'Closer'

Forget "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ." It turns out the most controversial movie of the year is Mike Nichols' film adaptation of the play "Closer," by Patrick Marber.

"Closer" was a tough enough play when it ran on Broadway and in London's West End. But a movie? That's a whole different deal now, isn't it?

Some critics described the play as a "sexual square dance" among four people — two men, two women — who bring new meaning to the expression "potty mouth."

That's because Marber's language is stark and designed to be hurtful. "Closer" is no fable. It's a brutally cold look at all relationships among these four people.

"Closer" has big stars like Julia Roberts and Jude Law, as well as up-and-coming ones like Natalie Portman and Clive Owen. Portman and Owen work well together, and their characters develop much like the characters in another famous Nichols film, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

In fact, "Closer" seems at times to be the bastard child of that movie and another Nichols classic, "Carnal Knowledge." And that's a little frightening when you think about it.

Immediately after I saw "Closer" the other day, a publicist wanted me to give it a grade. This is the cursed legacy of Entertainment Weekly.

I shall oblige by giving it a grade with a caveat: A-minus if we're not talking about a Best Picture Oscar or The New Morality. I'm giving it an A-minus because it looks great, has cool music by Damien Rice, Oscar-caliber performances by Owen and Portman and really fine work by Roberts and Law in less showy, more stolid roles than their counterparts.

In fact, Julia has added to her resume quite nicely here with a nuanced performance, and Jude can be proud of playing the role that "Alfie" wasn't for him.

But Best Picture? That's something not easily decided.

"Closer" is very noisy for a movie with four characters. Sometimes it feels like metal gears grinding against each other.

Nichols is not interested in making anyone comfortable, not the characters and certainly not the audience. To paraphrase George Bush: "Closer" is hard work.

For a long time, I didn't want to like it. But movies about relationships have become so watered down and milquetoast that you realize at some point that "Closer" is demanding the use of a brain muscle that isn't flexed much anymore.

In brief: Portman is a young American making a living in London as a mysterious stripper. She falls for Law, a newspaper obituary writer and failed novelist who in turn falls for Roberts, an American photographer also living in London.

Jude, unable at first to woo Julia, accidentally sets her up with Owen, whom she marries. But Jude's character cannot stop thinking about Julia and creates a situation in which the four players move about on the board of life like chess pieces.

Nichols and Marber have changed the ending of the movie so that it is quite different from the play. I don't think it matters. In the end, "Closer" is a character study, not plot-driven, and the pleasure comes from watching the actors constantly repositioning themselves.

Unfortunately, as with Portman's stripper, that can also be literal, and one scene with her and Owen is sure to cause more than just water-cooler talk. The only thing that crossed my mind as this played out was: "What will Portman's parents think when they see this?"

But luckily, Natalie's real-life dad is a famous gynecologist and fertility expert.

Hollywood PR Flacks in Fracas

There was a little bit of an explosion yesterday in the combustive world of Hollywood publicists.

Leslee Dart, one of the partners in powerhouse PMK-HBH, was forced out of her company after 23 years.

The culprit was her longtime partner, Pat Kingsley. Together with the recently retired Lois Smith, the pair had been running the very successful agency for years, with Kingsley on the West Coast and Smith and Dart on the East.

But trouble began when PMK — the letters ceased to have meaning years ago — merged with Huvane Baum Halls. The two agencies never really jelled, and the result was two different cultures trying to co-exist.

At the same time, Dart apparently was promised that Kingsley would retire in January, at last giving the younger woman a chance to run the company.

But Kingsley, who maintains a pageboy haircut and Southern accent to mask her steely determination, apparently had no intention of retiring. Dart, who is about 20 years younger, was tired of waiting around for her ascension.

Dart's departure probably means a mass exodus of clients from PMK to wherever she goes, including Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman. It was Dart who guided Allen through his mess with Mia Farrow and helped get Hanks two Oscar wins in a row.

What makes the PMK bust-up all the more interesting is that no one in the firm saw it coming until Wednesday afternoon. There was no advance warning, and many of the firm's tenured publicists were out of the office with clients when the flacks hit the fan.

It will be interesting to see what Dart does next and how Kingsley will cope with the sudden loss of many well-established clients. Something tells me, though, that both women will do just fine when the dust settles.

Martha Stewart Company Getting New Chairman?

It's a good thing: There's talk that Charles Koppelman, the music-business mogul and savior of Steve Madden shoes, is about to become chairman of the board of Martha Stewart Omnimedia.

Koppelman is one of the smartest guys in any business, having bought $5.25 million worth of shares in MSO in October at about $10.50. Yesterday, MSO closed at $18. You can do the math.

If Koppelman takes the MSO helm, he will force out current chairman Thomas C. Siekman. That would mean that when Martha gets out of jail in March, the landscape of her company will have really changed. (Earlier this week, Susan Lyne, formerly of ABC, Disney and Premiere magazine became CEO of Omnimedia, pushing out Sharon Patrick.)

Koppelman has a long and storied history in the music business, mostly as a publisher but also as one-third of a short-lived but very successful label called SBK. (They found early-'90s hit acts Wilson Phillips and Nelson.)

More recently Koppelman — who spent much of the '90s involved in "Bowie Bonds"-type capitalization deals — became a financial adviser to beleaguered Michael Jackson.

Forbes Celebrates Rupert Murdoch

It was a swell crowd that showed up last night at the St. Regis Hotel ballroom to see Forbes magazine celebrate Rupert Murdoch.

The chairman of News Corp. received the first B.C. Forbes Award in memory of the Forbes family's late patriarch, who emigrated to the U.S. from Scotland in 1904. News Corp. is the parent company of this Web site.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced Murdoch, who recapped his rise from owner of one Australian newspaper to international media mogul — truly the American dream.

Among those who came to hear Murdoch's moving speech about immigration — including the news that his own father once passed through Ellis Island — were Beverly Sills, Helen Gurley Brown and movie producer husband David Brown, FOX News anchor David Asman, New York Post editor-in-chief Col Allan and our very own grand poobah of FOX News Channel, Roger Ailes.

Steve Forbes, the one-time presidential candidate and now the main spokesman for his successful family, also gave a nice speech. Quite unlike his decadent late father Malcolm, Steve spoke about life values versus money, and then gave a $100,000 donation to the Save Ellis Island Foundation.

It was a lovely speech and gesture, but not surprising to those of us who often see the Forbes scion eating lunch with his staff smooshed into a corner of our tiny local coffee shop, Joe Jr.'s of Greenwich Village. Maybe that flat tax wasn't such a bad idea after all!

Anyway, a grand night that end with two celeb sightings at Elaine's: Elliott Gould in one corner and Michael Bolton in another.