Mike Leigh's new film, Career Girls, is compact and minor. I don't mean that as a slam exactly. After the dawdling expansiveness of last year's Secrets & Lies, his latest one is something of a relaxation--it's appealingly small-scale. Leigh isn't doing anything here he hasn't done better before, but at its best the film has a bemused empathy for the wigginess of people's lives. At its worst, it's Leigh Lite.
Annie (Lynda Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge, from Naked and Breaking the Waves) were college roommates for four years. Six years later, they have reunited in London for the weekend. Annie, who has moved out of the city, is plugging away at a boring job, while Hannah, equally weary, spends her spare hours looking around for a condo. In flashbacks, we see their first meeting; we see them sharing a flat, sharing miseries, boyfriends.
At first, the contrast between their past and present selves is startling, and not just because Leigh has filmed the flashbacks in an underlit, jittery camera style that is very different from the more smoothed-out and sunny present-day material. Compared with today's relatively demure Annie, the Annie of the flashbacks is a nervous wreck with a skin condition on her cheeks that looks like vanilla crust. She's a psychology major, of course.
Hannah in flashback is a facetious beanpole of a girl who riddles her speech with trying-to-be-bright wordplay. She's bitter--her mother is an alcoholic, and men never seem to measure up--but she has a comic's temperament. She's like a stand-up performer who fancies the world her audience. She's always on.
Now, with her skin smooth, Annie actually looks people in the eye. She's calmed down, but the calm derives less from happiness than resignation: Only 30, she has a middle-aged world-weariness creeping up on her. Hannah has the smart look of a professional woman who knows how to dress for success, even if success eludes her. She, too, is calmed down. She's learned how to ration her outbursts.
Of course, one of the pleasures of Career Girls is observing all the ways in which Annie and Hannah haven't really changed. Leigh understands how reunited friends, as a gesture of affection, revert to their old ways. He doesn't set the women up for any grand revelations; the soul-searching is kept to a minimum. And because the friends are not freighted with heavy baggage, they seem closer to our experience than the high dudgeon of most movies.
But Leigh's unobtrusiveness has its obtrusive side. Deliberately downplaying the drama can be as much of a con as playing it up; sometimes humdrum is just humdrum. Leigh wants us to celebrate Annie and Hannah because of their ordinariness, which he sees as magical, and that's a bit belittling.
The flashback sequences are the weakest because, to clash with the present, they've been exaggerated to near-cartoonishness. Annie and Hannah appear to be perpetually on caffeine or uppers, or worse, though their jags apparently are all-natural. Both actresses overdo the contrasts--Annie the Edgy Wallflower; Hannah the Mouth. In a way, Leigh might have been better off dispensing with the flashbacks altogether and letting our imaginations fill in the past--especially since we can sense the past-in-the-present in the performances of the two actresses anyway.
Since the flashbacks are in the movie, did they have to be so herky-jerky? They are supposed to issue from the women's reminiscences at bedtime, in the car, at lunch, but they all have the same goofy hecticness. Their emotional tone doesn't really match the way these women would regard their own pasts; they don't have enough nuance. Leigh is much better with the here-and-now than with the there-and-then. When he moves out of the everyday present, he loses his moorings--his art. The past is a country he doesn't inhabit.
Leigh doesn't bother to fill in much about what Annie and Hannah do for a living. In such films as High Hopes, he's a shaggy Marxist--class-conscious as hell--but here he's narrowed his characters' lives to a series of funny, forlorn episodes; it's Laverne & Shirley with depth of feeling. The funniest moments are the set-pieces in which Annie and Hannah look at condos and encounter first a bathrobed yuppie on the make (Andy Serkis) and, later, a jerk smoothie (Joe Tucker) who turns out to be an old lover of theirs from college. (Both men are thrilled with the mistaken notion that Annie and Hannah might be a couple).
What makes these scenes so comic is how the men prompt an innate giddiness in the women. For Annie and Hannah the cloddishness and come-ons of men exist for their delectation and scorn. You don't see this sort of thing in the movies much, but Leigh has always been good at female festiveness. He can show you women having fun together, or being miserable together, without setting himself up as Mr. Liberated Guy. I think that's because he appreciates the human comedy in whatever form it takes, and here he's tickled right along with the women.
Leigh often is called a realist, but that's not exactly right. He roots around in the commonplace for little wisps of the absurd, the ineffable. In Career Girls, he stages a series of amazing coincidences in which Annie and Hannah keep running into people from their shared past. It's a lovely, gimmicky conceit, though Leigh's magic always works best when it's not so imposed.
But his love for eccentrics, and eccentric happenstance, sometimes blinds him. The most egregious example in Career Girls is the girls' college friend Ricky (Mark Benton), a psych student with a shaggy mane and waddling torso who talks in a painfully halting patter as though he were picking up messages from a squawk box in outer space. Ricky is more than a mess. He's probably schizophrenic, but Leigh, without entirely discounting Ricky's pain, also showcases him as a kind of holy nut.
It's one thing for Annie and Hannah to overindulge Ricky--unbelievably, they don't recognize just how disturbed he is or try to do anything to help him. But Leigh's indulgence is something else again: It's a demonstration of how an artist scouring for stardust can confuse the tragical with the magical. In moments like these, Leigh's little absurdist flirtations seem inhuman. He's right to want to jump off from realism, but, in jumping, shouldn't he at least keep one eye open?
Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman, Kate Byers, Mark Benton, Andy Serkis, Joe Tucker. Written and directed by Mike Leigh. Opens Friday.
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