Writer-director Mike Leigh's latest film, "Career Girls," is so quirky that it makes his previous movie, the masterful "Secrets & Lies," look like an utterly conventional piece of film making.
This is the kind of movie that its proponents will call "challenging" and its detractors will dismiss as "pretentious." Both descriptions would be right.
Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman play Hannah and Annie, two college roommates who are getting together in London for the first time in the six years since their graduation.
In flashback, we see the girls as two bristling bundles of nervous energy. Hannah aggressively holds everyone at arm's length with acid-tongued barbs and sharp hand gestures. Annie is a shy introvert who can't meet anyone's gaze, and her dermatitis is so bad that Hannah describes her as having "danced with a cheese grater."
Now that these women are adults, clothed in beige suits instead of black leather, we see their emotional progress, but thanks to two terrific performances, we can also see their old personalities beneath the surface, mellowed enough to get by in the adult world.
Leigh has always been interested in human behavior, and he does a wonderful job of contrasting the two stages of the women's lives and of showing them in a continuum.
The flashback scenes are slightly washed out and filmed with a hand-held, jittery camera that perfectly captures the raw emotions of the subjects.
Unfortunately, Leigh the writer has not given the women much to do in their reunion, other than help Hannah find new digs and have them run into - by complete coincidence - pivotal characters from their college days.
Among them are Adrian (Joe Tucker), a married, seemingly steady real estate agent who once hung around the girls' apartment in his underwear and broke both of their hearts; Ricky (Mark Benton), a strange, confused young man who squeezes his eyes shut when he talks (mostly babbling); and Claire (Kate Byers), their first roommate, who couldn't take all the tension generated by Hannah and Annie.
After a while, the audience might feel the same way, and "Career Girls" begins to resemble a film school exercise. Everyone plays their part admirably, but the characters are more a collection of peculiarities than people with whom we can identify.
The strength of "Secrets & Lies" was in the ordinariness of its characters - despite their extraordinary situation. It had every bit as much heart as brains.
This time, Leigh studies his characters like rats in a lab, with great attention to detail but little reason for emotional involvement.