November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Saskia Reeves, Imelda Staunton

Meet Jane (Staunton), a bookstore clerk. She is myopic, dumpy and looks as if she were dressed by a cheap upholsterer. She tells her psychiatrist (Brenda Bruce) in this beguiling movie that she thinks there’s a book called How to Function in the World. Only she never got a copy. She gets bad tables at restaurants and bad haircuts. Her boyfriend is aroused only when she reads Iris Murdoch novels to him. Jane hates Iris Murdoch. But the biggest source of Jane’s agony is Antonia, the friend who married her fiancé, the friend who has such a happy life, the friend she pointlessly meets for dinner once a year.

Now meet Antonia (Reeves), who works for a publishing company and is lithe and pretty but, as she confides to her psychiatrist (she and Jane unknowingly share the same one), miserable. She hales her boss. Her husband is having an affair, and her son is too precocious. But the greatest source of her agony is Jane—the friend who makes her feel guilty, the friend who has such an interesting life, the friend with whom she pointlessly dines every year. Cut-ling back and forth between Antonia’s and Jane’s therapy sessions and their misshapen lives, the movie hilariously illuminates their twin piques. And it is so studded with witty musical, literary and political jokes that the least inattention will mean missed laughs and will require a second viewing. Not a bad fate. (R)

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