British director-writer Mike Leigh is in danger of becoming the maestro of actorly tics.
Although his method of cobbling his scenarios out of improvisational sessions with his players has yielded a series of sharply observed comedy-dramas -- the most fully realized one being 1991's Life Is Sweet -- it also encourages his actors to rely rather heavily on character-defining mannerisms. Often these are used to good effect, but with Career Girls the concept comes a cropper -- sniffles, grimaces and various spasms can't compensate for underdeveloped characters in a sentimental and unbelievable story.
The movie is structured as a series of time jumps, centering around Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman), seen alternately as punkish, outcast college flat-mates in the mid-'80s and as ostensibly better-adjusted, polished working women in the present. The film's problems begin early on as the young roomies are presented as broad caricatures: Hannah as a manic gesticulator and babbler, Annie as twitchy and pathetically shy, with a disfiguring case of acne that seems to have slithered in from The Creeping Unknown. Matters aren't helped by the introduction of Ricky, a flinching obese stutterer who speaks in cryptic half-phrases.
We meet the trio again during the present-day scenes, Hannah and Annie having learned how to suppress the more obvious manifestations of their still-present neuroses and Ricky, alas, having sunk deeper into his private world.
Career Girls isn't actually a bad film -- there's much to watch on a scene-by-scene basis, and even ostentatious acting can provoke a certain admiration. It's just a disappointing one from an excellent director.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.