Soul in the Hole
Air Force One
Now that you know how much it distressed me merely to place a Leigh film on the Honorable Mention list, you might be able to vaguely imagine how much it pains me to report that Leigh's latest, Career Girls, isn't even terribly good. Mind you, it isn't bad, either -- this is Mike Leigh we're talking about here, people -- but it's so severely crippled by its unprecedentedly high Twitchiness Quotient that I can't even work up enough enthusiasm to allot it a piddly three-star "close enough" rating. Unless Atom Egoyan's upcoming The Sweet Hereafter turns out to be a total dog (unlikely, given its reception at Cannes), I can't imagine experiencing a more profound film-related disappointment this year. I walked out of the theater in a morose daze, hoping halfheartedly that a mistake had been made, and that I'd just seen a promising but mediocre debut by a fellow named Mike Lee, who just happens to have a similar style to Leigh's, and coincidentally happened to cast Leigh alumnus Katrin Cartlidge and hire longtime Leigh collaborators like cinematographer Dick Pope and production designer Eve Stewart. So what if Secrets & Lies Oscar nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste composed much of the musical score?! And the word "Leigh" in the credits and on the poster could easily have been a typo! Upon reflection, however, this all seemed to me a bit untenable.
Cartlidge, who played the bizarrely damaged Sophie in Naked, returns here as one of Career Girls' two protagonists: college flatmates reuniting for a couple of days six years after graduation. Her character's name is Hannah; the other, Annie, is played by newcomer Lynda Steadman, who may or may not be related to Leigh's ex-wife, Alison Steadman. (I assume not, since nobody's yet suggested that she is.) The film begins in the present day, as Annie journeys back to London by train to meet Hannah, then flashes back repeatedly to their college days, contrasting the characters' gawky, uncertain former selves with the (slightly) more self-possessed and -confident demeanor they project nowadays. At the same time, the pair gradually work to re-establish the intimacy we see them develop during the flashbacks. They also continually bump into figures from their past -- so frequently, in fact, that Leigh apparently felt the need to call attention to this transparent narrative device by having Annie and Hannah remark upon how unlikely each coincidence is. This is more reflexive and postmodern than Leigh has ever been before, but then the flashback structure itself is unusual for him; generally, he asks his actors to create detailed histories for their characters, then chooses only to hint at those details, leaving the "backstory" shrouded in mystery. Career Girls is very atypical of his work (though not as atypical as the Gilbert & Sullivan biopic he's reportedly planning!), and while I don't object to Leigh's attempt to expand his horizons a bit, some fine-tuning is apparently in order.
Some critics have referred to Career Girls as "minor," but that's not the problem as far as I'm concerned; I prefer the equally minor Life Is Sweet, for example, to the far more ambitious Secrets & Lies. No, the problem is that Leigh, for the first time, seems to be verging on self-parody. Because of his unique improvisational working method, his films tend to depend upon the strength of their performances, and this is the one area in which a Leigh picture usually cannot be faulted...with one exception. While most of Leigh's characters, however unusual or quirky or mannered, remain recognizably human, the majority of his films -- Secrets & Lies is the only exception that comes to mind -- include one character, or character-pair, that amounts to an out-and-out caricature, detracting from the general tone of heightened naturalism. In High Hopes, it's the Boothe-Braines; in Life Is Sweet, it's Timothy Spall as Aubrey; in Naked, it's the sadistic creep known alternately as Jeremy or Sebastian. In Career Girls, on the other hand, it's everybody, just about. Hannah and Annie appear reasonably normal, if faintly odd, in the warmly-lit present-day scenes, but in flashback their nervous tics are so pronounced that it's easy to imagine them as sketch-comedy exaggerations of typical Leigh characters on an English equivalent of Saturday Night Live. Hannah affects a weirdly posh accent for about every third sentence, jerks her chin back and forth as if vainly attempting to impale whoever she's speaking to upon it, and generally behaves like an asylum escapee. Annie, meanwhile, seems unable to control her neck muscles, her head forever lolling about on her shoulders; this is explained (unusually superficially, for Leigh) as an aversion to looking other people in the eye, inspired by her unsightful skin condition, but Steadman substitutes the mannerism for proper characterization, turning in the least impressive leading performance I've ever seen in a Leigh movie. (Cartlidge, on the other hand, is so savagely funny that I can forgive her excesses.) As if this twitching twosome weren't artifice enough, their idiot savant friend ("I haven't found the savant part yet"), Ricky (Mark Benton), apparently mistook a tube of Crazy Glue for Visine sometime early in life; at least, he never succeeds in opening his eyes over the course of something like six to eight years of screen time. These characters are so uniformly spastic that watching the three of them together is like watching three marionettes being manipulated by three puppeteers with varying disorders of the central nervous system. I was less than beguiled.
But what of the story? you ask. That's the trouble: as usual, there is no story, really -- just a minute character study. (Secrets & Lies, yet again, is the exception.) If the characters in a Mike Leigh movie aren't utterly compelling, there's little else available to compensate, and while this one features enough funny dialogue and insightful moments to keep boredom at bay, it's frequently as irritating as it is entertaining. I'd like very much to recommend it to you, and to convince myself that it's yet another fine effort from my favorite auteur, but in good conscience I find that I cannot. Show me the Kleenex.
No such luck. Love Serenade is more successful than was Muriel's Wedding at juxtaposing the goofy and the creepy, and benefits from three superb performances, but at bottom it's a shaggy dog story, and not a very interesting one. Set in the fictional hamlet of Sunray, it begins when a big-city disc jockey by the name of Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov) moves in next door to the Hurley sisters, Vickie-Ann (Rebecca Frith) and Dimity (Miranda Otto, upon whom I developed a major crush four years ago when I saw Gillian Armstrong's The Last Days of Chez Nous). In the world I inhabit, local DJs are about as notorious and intriguing as, um, Internet film critics, but Vickie-Ann and Dimity react as if Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt had just taken up residence on their block. Before long, the pair are vying ferociously for Ken Sherry's affection (and I laboriously type "Ken Sherry" because he's invariably referred to by both of his names in the movie, which becomes a subtle running gag), while he nonchalantly takes advantage of their starstruck insecurity, commanding each of them to take her clothes off with the same neutral expression and tone of voice that usually accompanies a phrase like "Pass me the gravy" or "Get the phone, would you?"
Otto and Frith are both first-rate (although Frith is occasionally a bit too shrill; she gives the most stereotypically Australian performance of the lot), but the revelation here is Shevtsov, whose basset-hound face alone is mesmerizing. Ken Sherry's lovelorn, New Age on-air patter is as hokey as the platters he spins (Dionne Warwick, the Barry White title tune), but Shevtsov delivers the lines with such laid-back conviction that it's easy to imagine how Vickie-Ann and Dimity might find him irresistible. However, Ken Sherry is not altogether what he seems. "Oh, I'm odd," he remarks to Dimity at one point. "I'm very odd." And indeed he is: there's a mid-film revelation so incongruously bizarre that I couldn't help but laugh at the sheer audacity of it. (I won't reveal the film's secret, but anybody who's curious need only scan a few other reviews -- few critics seem to have resisted the temptation to hint at it with cutesy puns.) In a Q&A session following one of the New Directors screenings, Barrett confessed that she'd injected this element into the script's second draft, in an attempt to spice things up...and, unfortunately, that's exactly what it feels like onscreen. It isn't organic, and it doesn't really go anywhere; it doesn't even mask the film's narrative shortcomings, which I suspect was its ultimate intention. The ending, in particular, is atrociously bad -- "clever" in a coy, superficial, totally unsatisfying way. There's a lesson here for aspiring screenwriters: don't expect to salvage a mediocre script by suddenly deciding that one of the buddy cops could, hey, also be a necrophiliac alien! or that the talky Gen-Xers trading pop-culture references are, hey, really mutants who turn into giant cicadas on their 27th birthdays! (No, wait a minute, I actually want to see that second one -- somebody please go ahead and write it. )
To her credit, Barrett does a fine job of creating a palpable sense of time and place; Sunray is more believable than most of the events that happen within its city limits. With a milieu this detailed, and actors this strong, gimmicks aren't necessary; Barrett should take a page from Leigh (you just knew I'd come full circle, didn't you?), and allow her quirky characters to simply Be, without imposing a phony dramatic structure upon them. "Odd" is fine. "Very odd," as defined here, is pushing it.
When we first see Kenny, in the movie's very first shot, he's shouting at the top of his lungs, with variations of the verb "to fuck" rather prominently featured in his diatribe. I didn't even recognize him as a coach, at this point -- he looked more like an irate, drunken fan -- and was surprised when he turned out to be one of the film's two primary subjects. The other, predictably enough, is his star player, a friendly but irresponsible young black man affectionately known as "Booger." (I don't know what to make of the fact that none of the many black people in the film remark upon this nickname, while all of the few white people do. Kenny, I should note, is also black.) Booger, at the beginning of the movie, is living with Kenny and his family; his mother had tossed him out of the house, for reasons never specified, and he had nowhere else to go. Kenny, in essence, takes on the role of Booger's father (his real father, if I remember correctly, is never even mentioned), and the relationship between the two of them is the heart of the picture. Oh, we see highlights of a lot of basketball games, and a few of Booger's teammates are briefly interviewed; but director Danielle Gardner seems less interested in the fate of the kids than in the bond between Kenny and Booger, and (to a lesser degree) the bond between Kenny and the team in general.
I sincerely doubt that Gardner was thinking of Hollywood stereotypes when she decided to make this movie, but her portrait of Kenny serves, among other things, as a shameful reminder of how phony most black characters in movies tend to be. Kenny embodies many of the traits usually associated with poor urban black males onscreen: he's loud, profane, demonstrative, often obnoxious. He's ready to pick a fight with anybody who he perceives as disrespectful. But he's also -- and this is what the movies so rarely show us -- a fundamentally decent guy. When Kenny loses his low-paying job at a liquor store, his main concern is how disappointed his Kings will be that he can't afford to buy them Gatorade for a while. When most of the team doesn't show up on time for an important game, and it looks as if Kenny's Kings will have to forfeit, he buries his face in his hands and cries -- not because he can't bear to lose (though the team is undefeated at this point), but because he can't believe that the missing boys would let him and their teammates down. When was the last time you saw a large black man cry onscreen (without a gun pointed at his head)? The people who inhabited Hoop Dreams sometimes got lost in the quest for greater sociological significance; Soul in the Hole never loses sight of what's truly important. (I don't mean to harp on Hoop Dreams, which I liked as much as I do this film -- it's just a convenient touchstone.)
Actually, I lied. Gardner does lose sight of what's truly important when, near the end of the film, she leaves Kenny behind to follow Booger to his first year at an Arizona college. This is a mistake, because Booger's career goals haven't been the film's focus, and shouldn't be now; I was far less interested in how Booger would fare in his new environment than I was in how Kenny was coping with Booger's absence. (We see him crying again at the airport as Booger departs.) And the grim denouement that follows is emotionally unsatisfying, because Gardner can't show us why it happens -- unfortunate events occur, for no apparent reason, and then the movie simply ends. Still, Hollywood can't seem to get narrative or characterization right lately, so a film featuring unforgettable people doing inexplicable things is way ahead of the game. I have no idea how widely Soul in the Hole is being distributed -- it got a token release in New York, in the same Village theater where Miramax buried Through the Olive Trees two years ago -- but keep an eye out. If you've seen one basketball documentary, you have not necessarily seen them all.