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English director Mike Leigh’s self-dubbed “organic” procedure for germinating a film was widely discussed in the publicity surrounding the release of his unexpected but deserving international success, Secrets & Lies. He begins with a vaguely formed idea of a subject he wishes to explore—adoption in Secrets & Lies—then gathers an ensemble of actors. Working individually and in groups through months of improvisations, discussions, and research, Leigh and his cast collectively evolve a story line and characters. Each character’s life is developed from infancy onwards, resulting in detailed personal dossiers that add resonance to the performers’ interactions. At the end of this process, which can last as long as six months, Leigh blocks out a screenplay, writes dialogue, and rehearses his actors on location before shooting each scene. The result is a unique blend of documentary and fiction, the sense of everyday life sculpted into an artistic form.

The efficacy of Leigh’s method has been proved in a series of films, television plays, and theater pieces, some consistently inspired (High Hopes, Secrets & Lies), others uneven (Life Is Sweet, Naked). (For me, his finest effort remains 1987’s The Short and Curlies, a bittersweet 18-minute comedy about a beautician and her daughter that frequently airs on the Bravo cable channel.) Career Girls, his latest work, exposes his theory’s pitfalls. This uncharacteristically insubstantial comedy-drama about the reunion of two university roommates is overwhelmed by its performers’ emotive excesses. In the course of inventing juicy showcase roles for themselves, the actors appear to have lost sight of any larger purpose. Despite some forceful moments, Career Girls is the least impressive of Leigh’s five theatrical features, an oddly tame successor to his Oscar-nominated breakthrough movie.

As the film opens, Annie (Lynda Steadman) is traveling from the north of England, where she holds down a paper-pushing administrative job, to visit Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge), whom she hasn’t seen since their college days. In flashbacks, she recalls their first meetings in the mid-’80s. Pathologically shy, a timorousness that manifests itself in asthma and a face-disfiguring nervous rash, Annie recalls how intimidated she was by her initial encounters with brash, quirky, caustic Hannah.

At the railway station, the erstwhile friends are startled by the changes six years have wrought. Hannah has become sleek and elegant, an on-the-rise stationery-firm manager with perks that include a company car and a home fax machine. Annie has grown more outgoing—her dermatitis has cleared up—and self-assured. Over a long weekend, the pair review their past (more flashbacks), re-examine their relationship, and share future aspirations.

In both substance and style, Career Girls is excessively schematic. Apart from their shared status as youthful outcasts, Hannah and Annie have opposing temperaments. With her angular features and misaligned teeth, Hannah, an English literature major, looks (and behaves) like a Dickensian grotesque. Brainy, manic, and heartlessly witty—at her first sight of Annie’s ravaged face she lethally quips, “You look like you’ve done the tango with a cheese grater”—she’s driven by contempt for her alcoholic mother. Insecure and withdrawn, Annie, who appropriately enough is studying psychology, can barely force herself to make eye contact with others, has little to say about her family, and harbors secret sadomasochistic erotic fantasies. (Hints of childhood sexual abuse appear to be part of her back story, but these are never confirmed.)

Cartlidge, who previously appeared in Naked and Breaking the Waves, and Steadman, who makes her screen debut in Career Girls, are gifted actresses. (Steadman is not, as one might assume, the daughter of Leigh and his talented ex-wife and frequent leading lady Alison Steadman. The film’s publicity does not indicate if or how she is related to the director’s family.) But their performances in the flashback sequences are so wildly out of control one wonders why Leigh allowed them such latitude.When they are first shown squabbling and smoking spliffs in their dank, sordid college digs, they could easily be mistaken for occupants of a halfway house for the mentally deranged. Visits from their troubled, pudgy classmate Ricky (Mark Benton), who aptly describes himself as “an idiot savant who hasn’t found his savant yet,” reinforce this impression. I haven’t seen an acting ensemble indulge in so much hysterical twitching, scratching, eye-rolling, and hair-fiddling since the notorious ’60s Actors Studio production of The Cherry Orchard featuring Geraldine Page, Kim Stanley, Shelley Winters, and Sandy Dennis. How these neurotics manage to mature into relatively functional career women in the space of six years is never satisfactorily addressed or explained.

Formally, Career Girls is equally systematized. The ’80s university scenes are filmed through blue filters that render the actors’ faces in chalky, horror-movie whites, and the soundtrack rages with pop tunes by the Cure. The contemporary sequences, employing beige, yellow, green, and other soothing hues, are underscored by blandly impressionistic guitar-and-woodwind music composed by Marianne Jean-Baptiste (who played the optometrist in Secrets & Lies) and Tony Remy. Leigh’s obsession with order is also reflected in his screenplay. Over the course of two days, Hannah and Annie accidentally cross paths with no fewer than three of their university chums, including a man both were infatuated with. The characters’ recognition of the slim mathematical odds of such meetings occurring does not exonerate Leigh from charges of clumsy dramatic contrivance.

Even in what is surely his weakest feature, the filmmaker demonstrates his considerable skills. Several sequences sparkle with comedic energy, notably Hannah’s visit to a Playboy-style Thameside high-rise apartment she’s considering purchasing. (Checking out the view, she quips to its pathetic would-be lothario occupant, “I suppose on a clear day you can see the class struggle from here.”) Leigh has fused the experiments of other realist directors while neatly sidestepping their flaws. He embraces Ken Loach’s social and political concerns without resorting to blatant didacticism, and he shares Robert Altman’s and John Cassavetes’ fondness for collaboration with actors without stranding his players onscreen when their improvisatory inspiration flags.

But in Career Girls, he has become too self-effacing, refusing to prevent his cast from going over the top. Their effusive histrionics have distracted him from clarifying his theme. Are we supposed to regret that his characters’ youthful intensity, however painful, has been bridled by the restraints of adult commerce? Or are we to be comforted by how time and responsibility have calmed the girls’ demons? As they prepare to part, Hannah admits to Annie, “I’m just not strong enough to be as vulnerable as you,” and Annie confesses, “You’re the only person who ever appreciated me.” The psychobabble staleness of this exchange suggests that next time out Leigh should not be so willing to relinquish his director’s chair in order to appease the desires and ambitions of his collaborators.CP