Movie Review
Friends with Money
2006
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand
B+


there is a scene midway through Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money where the wildly affluent and moderately ditzy Franny (Joan Cusack) discusses her longtime, younger friend, Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), with her husband as they undress for bed after a dinner out with friends. Franny and her husband are planning a gift of $2 million to their toddler’s daycare center, while Olivia, having quit her job as a high school teacher, has started cleaning houses. Franny’s helped Olivia out financially before. She’ll resist lending her money again, but she will fix her up romantically with a personal trainer who turns out to be a jerk. Olivia does just fine in both the money and man departments by closing fade-out, and turns out to be a fine friend in some old-fashioned ways that matter. But first, Franny’s husband wonders aloud if the two women would be friends at all if they met now. Thinking a moment, Franny decides, “Probably not.”

Ostensibly, Friends with Money is about the anxieties that money can create among intimate friends in a highly mobile society. Holofcener recently told the Washington Post that creeping income disparities in her own circle of friends and family had eventually caused such mischief that she found herself “ashamed when I cared, ashamed when I was materialistic, jealous when I didn’t have it, guilty when I did.” Her film presents a quartet of West Coast women, played by Anniston and Cusack, along with Catherine Keener (a screenwriter whose marriage to her work partner falls apart) and Frances McDormand (a fashion designer with an enormously gentle, appealing husband whom nearly every other character insists must be gay--adding an astute, efficient subtext to the film about the maddening, contradictory burdens even progressive women put on men).

Each of Holofcener’s feature films has used some issue of current, representative social mores as a frame on which to hang a story about relationships among women. In 2002, her Lovely and Amazing focused on the toll of women’s pervasive discomfort with their bodies (or some might say, on contemporary narcissism). Her first film, Walking and Talking (1996), tackled the strain that occurs for life-long best friends when one gets happily engaged and the other’s problems with men persist. Between films, she’s worked as a television writer and director on similar fictional commentaries on contemporary life: HBO’s Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, and the WB’s Gilmore Girls.


Holofcener’s films wear their social issues like a loose garment. For good or ill, she is primarily a storyteller of personal lives. The strength of her storytelling resides in choreographing the critical junctures in her often quirky characters’ relationships. Her latest effort manages to juggle four women’s relationship issues with their partners and each other through a series of vignettes about their non-earth-shattering, but personally significant, crises. Olivia’s apparent crisis is just the dramatic device to get things rolling. Like the sleep-walking woman on the edge of the cliff in an old melodrama, she somehow fails to grasp the danger that her friends—and even Franny’s Mexican housekeeper—see in her stint as a maid. Not that Olivia’s a fool. Her reassuring answer to the client who’s embarrassed his house is so messy–“That’s what I’m here for”–suggests that she probably was patient with those high school students. Olivia often takes the time to think before she answers, a sign of more self-possession than her friends care to recognize. And in a film where the aesthetic depends so heavily on the human face, you know something is really wrong when she comments that the “sex is fun but he doesn’t look at me.” Holofcener’s filmmaking proceeds by small, carefully crafted, and very often rich, purely visual moments. This signifies both her considerable craft and her major challenge.

Catherine Keener’s been in all three Holofcener features, and it’s a pleasure to re-watch the films just to witness her growth as an actor over the decade. Holofcener’s casts indicate that, from the start, actors who have turned out to be very good have loved working with her. Why would this be so? Friends with Money offers spectacularly good acting among all its principals—and more specifically, quintessentially screen acting. In this regard, it reminds me a bit of Rodrigo Garcia’s work. His films (most recently, last year’s Nine Live), much like Holofcener’s, work more radically by stringing together anthologies of discrete, short episodes. They both have a dazzling ability to create finely wrought, up-close scenes. Movie actors savor such a chance to perform closely with their director and the camera; when it clicks, it’s that rare cinematic equivalent of what stage actors describe as an electric exchange with a live audience.

Such close work can be risky. Viewers and critics alike often prefer it in small doses. Director Amos Gitae experimented with work like this in his latest outing, Free Zone, which opens with a ten-minute close-up of Natalie Portman weeping silently while an Israeli songs plays over the soundtrack. Entire films built around such a dynamic require an attention adjustment that can be exhausting, and translate into complaints of boredom, demands for editing, and wishes for “larger” aims–that is, more action, more dialogue, and greater consequences. Indeed, the most frequent criticism of Holofcener’s work is that she should be more “adventurous” and less “modest.”

Here in upstate New York, Friends with Money straddles the line, screening simultaneously at the mall multiplex and at a locally-owned small art cinema just off campus. I’m reminded of a birthday card I saw recently: On the cover there’s a girl with candles on her cake; inside the message, “Dream bigger.” Tighter, deeper, and more focused and generous than her previous efforts, this is the film we’ll look back on as the moment when Holofcener did just that.

Friends with Money is in theaters across the country now.


By: Nancy Keefe Rhodes
Published on: 2006-05-11
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