Real Girls

Mike Leigh's new 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 film 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) were college roommates for four years. Six years later, they've 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, sharing 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's different from the 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 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 from resignation: Only 30, she has a middle-aged world-weariness creeping up on her. The modern-day 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, devolve into 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 aren't 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, though their jags are apparently all-natural. In a way, Leigh might have been better off dispensing with the flashbacks 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.

But since the flashbacks are in the movie, I wish they'd been less herky-jerky. They're supposed to issue from the women's reminiscences at bedtime, in the car, at lunch, but they all have the same goofily hectic quality. 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. 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 and, later, a jerk smoothie 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 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 is often 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, if gimmicky, conceit, though Leigh's magic always works best when it's not so imposed.

Unfortunately, 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 who talks 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 indulge Ricky, but Leigh's indulgence is something else again: It's a demonstration of how an artist scouring for stardust can confuse what's magic with what's tragic. In moments such as 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?

-- Peter Rainer

Career Girls.
Directed by Mike Leigh. With Katrin Cartlidge, Lynda Steadman and Mark Benton.

Rated R.
87 minutes.


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