Career Girls: Leigh Rests on his Laurels
Elisabeth Friedman, Western Michigan University (February 1998)
Career Girls, directed and written by Mike Leigh, promised to be yet another of his intensely character-focused, soul-searching wonders. Again, it was created through his close collaboration with the actors, in an attempt to let the realism of human interaction shine from the silver screen. Unfortunately, he seems to have let his genre run away with him.
In this movie, Leigh sets up what could be a very thought-provoking and sensitive situation: the six-year reunion of two misfit friends from North London Polytechnic, who have since become somewhat successful young professionals. The movie follows a standard outline for "reunion" flicks: the activities during a weekend in the present interspersed with flashbacks to college days. Between the two, we are led to understand that Annie (Lynn Steadman) and Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) were drawn together through their problems (disfiguring dermatitis and neurotic shyness on the one hand; a history of childhood neglect and a present of excessive demands by an alcoholic mother on the other) in college. They also shared one young man's friendship, and another's sexual attentions, during that time. Today the friends seemed to have mostly solved their problems (including bad skin), but the difficulties of a past of shared male attentions linger on. In a series of coincidences they run into both men, which allows them to reflect on the remaining rivalry and affirm their friendship at the end.
The central problem with the movie is that in his attempt to bring the women and their friendship to life, Leigh (and perhaps his actor collaborators) has gone too far. The physical tics of the college students are overdone to the point that the older Annie seems to have almost no connection to the younger (though played by the same actress). The vehicle for the resolution of their rivalry, the present-day encounters with the men, are so unbelievable the characters themselves are forced to admit it. The lover turns out to be a real estate agent, and with apparent unrecognition shows them around an empty apartment, leering at what he believes is a lesbian couple. The friend magically appears on none other than the steps of their old college digs.
I don't wish to give the impression that this movie is worthless. Reunion movies (think Return of the Secaucus 7, The Big Chill, and most recently, Grosse Pointe Blank) are a nice way to hone in on friendships, and it is refreshing to watch one that so clearly takes its female characters' lives and platonic relationship seriously. Moreover, as usual Leigh gives us decidedly unlikely heroines, and takes us through post-adolescent angst as well as mid-30s recovery. There are a couple of choice Leigh lines (my favorite from Hannah, gazing down from the balcony of a posh apartment: "on a clear day, can you see the class struggle from up here?") and moments of moving connection between Hannah and Annie, both in the past and the present.
But overall, this was one of those movies during which you aren't too disappointed when the phone rings, and it just happens to be a good woman friend of yoursfrom college perhapswho interrupts your video screening for some nice chat.