Before & After

Career Girls

Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

CAREER GIRLS MIGHT be Mike Leigh's slightest film in a decade--which is to say it's still richer than any other movie in current release. A director whose unusually rigorous pre-production methods involve months of intensive workshops with his actors, Leigh has responded to the challenge of improving upon his last two masterpieces (Naked and Secrets & Lies) by not trying to. Nevertheless, by settling on the story of two old college roommates whose meeting in London after six years triggers a string of flashbacks, this class-conscious filmmaker has given us two movies for the price of one (with a combined running time of less than 90 minutes). And while continuing his project of blurring the distinction between black comedy and painful drama, he's also delivered an old-fashioned women's picture in a climate that would seem inhospitable to the endeavor.

Clearly, Leigh prefers to define things in relation to their opposite. His Life is Sweet (1991) mixed and matched two chefs and a pair of radically different twin daughters, while Secrets & Lies counterposed a calm, black optometrist with her white and very high-strung factory-worker birth-mother--and then proceeded to unite them more or less credibly. Equally contrived (at least on paper), Career Girls employs a parallel time structure to compare two dissimilar women to each other--introverted Annie (Lynda Steadman) and extroverted Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge)--and each to her former self. Everything clashes: In the present, the reunited career girls grin and bear their emotional distance in tasteful surroundings, to the tune of soothing adult-contempo pop; in the past, early '80s Cure songs further abrade the roommates' open wounds, their countless behavioral tics bouncing off the walls of their cramped and dingy flat above a Chinese take-out joint. Still, and in keeping with the Leigh formula, there's a sense in which Hannah and Annie are and always have been two halves of the same whole.

Lacking a plot per se, Career Girls is mainly a film about characters--which, per Leigh's m.o., means it's even more a film about actors. Making her feature debut, Steadman plays the '80s Annie as a quivering shoegazer whose insecurity seems to emanate from a scarlet streak of dermatitis; although the new and improved Annie lives with her mom in northern England and has found the strength to hold her head up, it's clear that her scars haven't fully healed. In the showier role, Cartlidge pitches her college-age Hannah as a pigtailed cross between David Thewlis's Naked misanthrope and a distaff Groucho Marx. "You look like you've done the tango with a cheese grater" is how Hannah greets her new roommate (who collapses into tears); other hyper-expressive wisecracks spew forth while her hand chatters like a sarcastic second mouth. The grown-up Hannah--a company manager who lives in a clean apartment with hardwood floors and a nice view--has gotten much better at keeping her mean streak to herself, merely rolling her eyes at Annie's woe-is-me routines. Provocatively, Leigh measures the women's "maturity" by how smoothly they suppress their mood swings, and perhaps their true feelings.

Thus, Career Girls is more complicated than it would appear. As Leigh preserves the mystery of how his characters could have cleaned up their affects so profoundly in six years (Prozac?), he uses their swift class ascension to cast aspersions on their new health. Indeed, besides work and material acquisition ("You've got everything!" Annie delights of Hannah's new digs), the women don't seem to have too much going for them, nor do they have each other anymore--which may explain why they spend so much screen time cueing flashbacks to wilder days. None of the old acquaintances they run into during their weekend together--like the third-wheel roommate who's become a can't-be-bothered yuppie jogger (Kate Byers), or the former philanderer who's now a smug real-estate salesman (Joe Tucker)--appears much improved for his or her quick fixes.

Leigh's occasional references to the metamorphic possibilities of psychoanalysis, a nutty chemist, and the Cure (note in particular their tune about a "caterpillar girl") seem like red-herrings or self-parody. But one of Hannah's throwaway jokes about Thatcherism ad nauseum provides a clue that personal improvement is political and vice versa--especially as regards Ricky (Mark Benton), the self-described "idiot savant who hasn't found my savant," whose fortune in every respect goes the opposite of the career girls'.

As the friends' most precious commodity remains their dog-eared paperback of Wuthering Heights, it's tempting to read Career Girls not just as a no-fuss throwback to the likes of Leigh's '70s work for the BBC, but as the filmmaker's personal meditation on his own before-and-after story. Having earned his widest and most "adult" audience with the crowd-pleasing Secrets & Lies, Career Girls finds Leigh turning his back on the chance to capitalize on that investment, as if to suggest that moving up in the world isn't all it's cracked up to be--or, at least, not the only way to go.

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