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Career Girls' Takes Meandering Path

The trouble with making a runaway hit is that people start expecting more of the same.

Mike Leigh labored for years at quirky, bittersweet little films about ordinary people leading ordinary lives. A few, like "High Hopes" and "Life Is Sweet," gained respectful attention but proved limited in their appeal.

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He made a breakthrough with the 1993 drama "Naked," winning top awards on the film-festival circuit. Then came last year's "Secrets & Lies," launched with the grand prize at Cannes and saluted by Hollywood with an impressive showing in the Academy Award nominations.

Leigh has clearly been on a roll. Will his new picture, "Career Girls," carry him to still greater heights? Or is it time for his rising roller coaster to take a dip - maybe even a heart-sinking plunge?

"Career Girls" is no disaster, but it's definitely a dip if one measures it by the high standards Leigh has set for himself in the past. Its problems aren't easy to pin down, since the acting and camera work have all the unpredictable twists and offbeat rhythms that Leigh's admirers have grown to love.

Trouble comes less from the story or characters than from the picture's overall tone, which can't decide whether it's rooted in the here-and-now of everyday life or the less tangible atmosphere of deep-down hopes and dreams. In short, the tale doesn't always seem sure where it's going, and for once in his career, Leigh doesn't always appear to have a firm grasp on his project.

The main characters are Hannah and Annie, college chums getting together for the first time since graduation six years ago. Both have come a long way, conquering problems that tormented them during their school days. But they still feel connected by the experiences they went through together.

Overcoming a new set of differences caused by their unequal positions in the professional world, they spend a long weekend in each other's company, hashing over the past and revealing their hopes for the future. Along the way they run into friends and foes from bygone years.

This is a promising movie idea, well suited to Leigh's filmmaking methods. Here as in his previous pictures, he has developed the story and characters in partnership with the cast, writing the screenplay only after much brainstorming and improvising.

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No artistic system is foolproof, however, and this time Leigh's time-tested procedures have let him down. The performances are convincing and the London backgrounds have plenty of gritty authenticity. But the action becomes less focused and more meandering, and the characters never grow much richer.

In an apparent effort to save the movie from these problems, Leigh and company try to build psychological interest through an increasingly odd series of coincidences and chance meetings. This is a legitimate tactic - life is certainly full of unexpected surprises - but "Career Girls" relies so heavily on the device that even the characters start wondering what's going on.

You can't help feeling the story has lost its bearings. This impression is supported by Leigh's decision to drench much of the picture in fizzy pop music - like using a spicy sauce to hide the taste of a dish that didn't quite turn out.

The performers do their best under the circumstances, led by Katrin Cartlidge - widely applauded for "Naked" and "Breaking the Waves" - and newcomer Lynda Steadman. Andy Serkis and Joe Tucker are effective as two of the creeps our heroines deal with during their weekend. Mark Benton overdoes it as the most maladjusted of their old friends.

The film's original music was composed by Tony Remy and the multitalented Marianne Jean-Baptiste, an Oscar nominee for her wonderful acting as the adopted daughter in "Secrets & Lies." The flashback scenes are accompanied by far too many pop songs from the Cure.

*'Career Girls' has an R rating. It contains vulgar language and sexually frank dialogue.

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