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Memphis Flyer This Movie's a Crime

Hoodlum robs viewers of what could have been a great movie; director Mike Leigh works overtime to make Career Girls something special.

By Mark Jordan

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Hoodlum tells the little-known true story of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, played in this film by Laurence Fishburne. A veteran of the Harlem numbers racket run by the Queen, Madame Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), Bumpy is released from prison in 1934 into a world in the throws of a depression and a Harlem caught in the middle of a mob war between his old boss and white gangster Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), who is seeking to expand his own operation north into Harlem.

Bumpy goes back to work for the Queen, and when Schultz uses his machine of corrupt public officials to have her put behind bars, Bumpy takes over her racket and commences to wage full-scale war, becoming almost as brutal as the psychopathic Schultz.

Eventually the Bumpy-Dutch war plays itself out, inevitably for those viewers with even a passing knowledge of mob history. But it isn't just prescience that robs Hoodlum of its suspense; it's a shoddy, ill-executed script.

Director Bill Duke has covered the milieu of '30s Harlem (A Rage In Harlem) and the descent of a good, smart man into cruelty and criminality (Deep Cover) to great effect before, but this time out he's getting little help from his screenwriter, Chris Brancato, the writer of the comic-bookish sci-fi thriller Species.

As written by Brancato, Hoodlum is the kind of film where characters clumsily describe each other out loud, as in one of the opening scenes when Bumpy is being released from jail. As the Sing Sing warden prepares to sign Bumpy's parole he tells him: "You're different from most men here, Johnson. You read books. You play chess. You write poetry."

And sure enough, throughout the movie we see him do all those things, but we never know why he does them. Never are Bumpy's inner drives or passions revealed. Why did this vicious gangster develop these higher pursuits? Why did a man with such obvious talents set his ambitions on crime? We never know, and we suspect the screenwriter either hasn't a clue or doesn't care.

Similarly, the film's obligatory romance between Fishburne and Vanessa Williams -- a surprisingly talented actress in search of a worthy movie -- seems to come from nowhere. She is ostensibly attracted to his "poetic" soul, but if so, she's seeing something we aren't.

Hoodlum's script shortcomings are made all the more tragic by the fact that Duke has assembled one of the best casts of any recent film. Besides the always magnetic Fishburne; Roth, who has really made himself a force in American cinema lately; Williams; and, of course Tyson; the film boasts nice turns by such established character actors as William Atherton, Chi McBride, Loretta Devine, and Clarence Williams III. And Andy Garcia's portrayal of the boss of crime bosses, Lucky Luciano, makes you wish he had a whole movie to himself to explore his character.

Fans of last year's Secrets and Lies may have thought they had discovered a new auteur in director Mike Leigh, a social commentator with a deft touch for finely drawn characters and the legendary understated British humor. Leigh, however, has actually been cranking out brilliant, quirky, yet keenly observed comedies and dramas in England for more than 20 years, first on British television and lately for the big screen, as in his other theatrical releases Naked, Life Is Sweet, and High Hopes.

His latest, Career Girls, is a worthy addition to his oeuvre. A film at various times about friendship, family, work, adolescence, maturation, love, work, and Thatcher-era despondency, its artistry lies in the way Leigh subtly provokes ideas in the viewers' heads without outright stating them.

The slight story concerns the weekend-long reunion of two college flatmates, Hannah (Katrin Cartlidge) and Annie (Lynda Steadman). The two haven't seen each other in six years, and in the film's opening moments, as the pair struggle uneasily to reestablish their bond, Leigh's editing and the performances of Cartlidge and Steadman combine to create a nervous tension that is as uncomfortable to watch as such moments are to experience.

As the film unravels, however, the two women rediscover the qualities in each other that made such different types the best of friends.

Through flashbacks, we see that during college Annie is the painfully sensitive one. Scarred through most of her adolescence by an unsightly skin condition, Annie is socially awkward and openly neurotic, constantly hanging her head down low to avoid the stares of others.

Hannah, on the other hand, is tough as leather, hardened by life with her alcoholic mother and almost incapable of love. But something in the overly vulnerable Annie brings out her protective instincts.

Though this central relationship is a bit obvious, Leigh's writing keeps the work a float.

As Hannah and Annie go through their weekend together, the film flashes back to their college years, sparked in part by their encounters with a number of people from their shared past: a boorish lover that Hannah gave to Annie when she fell for him, a mildly-retarded suitor of Annie's, and even the third flatmate they dumped after their first year in college.

Besides chronicling the pair's friendship from its neurotic beginning to their goodbyes at the end of college, the flashbacks help tell the tale of perhaps that most pivotal point in a person's life: those trepid years between the horrors of adolescence and the empowering confidence of young adulthood. And in showing Hannah and Annie as they enter this stage and at the end of it, Cartlidge and Steadman deliver performances that are consistent and wonderfully contrast their characters' youthful selves with their self-assured adult personas.

Of course, the older Hannah and Annie are far from complete adults. Hannah still struggles with her inability to be intimate. Annie hasn't yet fully established herself as a completely independent adult. And both are less than thrilled with their middle-class, uninvolving jobs. But perhaps because of what they learned from each other, these girls are off to promising careers.

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