Friday, April 06, 2012

Friends With Money (2006)

USA, 88 minutes
Director/writer: Nicole Holofcener
Photography: Terry Stacey
Music: Rickie Lee Jones, Craig Richey
Editor: Robert Frazen
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Greg Germann, Catherine Keener, Jason Isaacs, Frances McDormand, Simon McBurney, Scott Caan, Bob Stephenson

It's possible that Friends With Money is the best movie Nicole Holofcener has made but I wouldn't bet my last dime on it. In the first place, they're all pretty good, each one feeling like the best even as you watch it (and in the second place, she's not done yet). They tend toward gentle ensemble pieces with familiar players and something of a TV-sitcom feel, sharply observed human foible centered around, goofing off of, revealing, departing from, working variations on its characters, who look and act like real people behind the deceptively easygoing streams of jokes, gags, and uneventful scenes. The always impressive Catherine Keener assumes her usual role as Holofcener's alter ego. It could well be my appreciation for Woody Allen (and/or the collected stories of Chekhov) that is at the heart of what I like so much about Holofcener's scenes and characters, oblique and pungent at once.

The TV-sitcom feel doesn't come from nowhere. A lot of television credentials are in play here. It's the kind of "small" relationship movie that plays well on a TV. Holofcener has directed episodes of "Sex and the City," "Six Feet Under," and "Parks and Recreation." Jennifer Aniston's background is well known, and I hasten to add (or admit) that she could be the single element for me that vaults Friends With Money over the rest of Holofcener's pictures (all of which, I say again, eminently worth seeing): Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, and Please Give.

Aniston, of course, has been vastly overexposed for years now, more and more settling for the schlocky by-the-numbers rom-com fare that so many seem to persist in believing is her natural forte, wearing out an embarrassing rut of increasingly empty Rachel Greens even as she sinks into the pitiable little-girl-lost narratives that have attached to her in the tabloids. She's hard to see, in other words. Now myself, I really did not care for "Friends"—I detested it, in fact—but I was impressed with the kinds of roles she was taking at one point, for example Office Space and The Good Girl, and for a time I persisted myself in hoping there was a better player there.

In that way, Friends With Money, set in Los Angeles, is just the kind of vehicle I like for her. She plays Olivia, a 30something former high school teacher now working as a housemaid, who smokes too much pot and has an ugly compulsive obsession with a married man with whom she was briefly involved in the past. Her friends—Christine (played by Catherine Keener), Franny (played by Joan Cusack with an endearing energy), and Jane (played by Frances McDormand as effectively the star of the whole show)—are, as the title promises, each settled into a safe, affluent life, with marriages, children, homes, careers.

Their lives are not without disappointments and complexities, along with the usual long-simmering resentments and compromises between friends of long standing. The picture proceeds with the kind of episodic pastiches of characters and relationships perfected by Woody Allen in, say, Hannah and Her Sisters: there are meals in restaurants, visits to one another's homes, and numerous shopping trips. There are many conversations in cars on the way to or home from social events. And a number of stories are in motion at once: Christine is headed to a bad end in her marriage with David (played by Jason Isaacs), with whom she is a screenwriting partner. Franny, the wealthiest of them all and a self-styled philanthropist ("we found a place for that $2 million"), is constantly and loudly worried about Olivia. Jane, a successful fashion designer, is on the verge of a breakdown; she is too depressed to wash her hair ("my arms get tired"), and everyone thinks her husband Aaron (played by Simon McBurney) is gay.

Holofcener's screenplay is a thing of concision and economy, which produces a nice headlong momentum as it goes. Olivia's poverty and the ways she copes are fascinating to watch, and they feel real. It's paradoxically hard to have much sympathy for someone living among such wealth—one feels inclined to agree with her friends that she has better choices than working as a housemaid, which in turn slyly raises issues of class bias and self-consciousness. But there's a fascinating blend of the conscious and unconscious in the ways that Olivia acts out her anger, the moments she chooses to take a stand, and the issues on which she fights, as well as the ways she earns or thinks about money.

In the end it all turns into something of a fairy tale, which has been derided as a cop-out. I'm not so sure that's the case—I think a fairy tale can also be a good story. Plus even though Olivia's is the A-story here, each of her friends, and her friend's partners too, also have stories. They don't all come to good ends, or even ends with meaning—I could detect no particular arc to Franny, who we see late carrying armloads of toys out of a Christmastime toystore vaguely worrying the morality of lavish gift-giving. If I happen to like the ending Olivia gets, it doesn't necessarily portend anything like a "happily ever after"—even if I hope so, and feel she deserves it, so invested am I finally in her character. In that way its closing scene reminds me of the closing scene in The Graduate.

All the players here are good, but Frances McDormand is truly outstanding. She is so convincing as a middle-aged woman suddenly plunged into existential despair—the character is written really well, but it feels like McDormand reached deep to make her scenes work, and they do. They are the best things here, her quivering public meltdowns over things like parking spaces and people butting in at cashier lines, her deteriorating appearance, and the really baffling fundamentals of her ultimately happy marriage—McBurney, as if inspired off of the energy of McDormand, plays to her just about perfectly. Their story, from beginning to middle to end, is a good show all in itself.

Top 10 of 2006
This counts for me as a year of blissful ignorance, so my list is mostly a matter of later research. I did have occasion to see Borat and Friends With Money in theaters when they were new. The rest are all good, in very different ways. I don't have many thoughts on this year—it's off the highs of '07 and '05, but better than '08. How's that?
1. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
2. Once
3. United 93
4. Friends With Money
5. Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?
6. Black Book
7. A Prairie Home Companion
8. Miami Vice
9. Lake of Fire
10. Old Joy

Didn't like so much: The Departed, The Host, An Inconvenient Truth, The Lives of Others, When the Levees Broke

Gaps: Children of Men, Dreamgirls, Letters From Iwo Jima, Memories of Matsuko, The Queen


  1. Not at all familiar with this film, but I'll add it to Netflix. Anything drawing on the short stories of Chekhov (favorites of mine as well) can't be half-bad. Out of curiosity, what was your beef with An Inconvenient Truth & When the Levees Broke? The first I suppose was fine as far as it goes, maybe primarily interesting (at least aside from it's being a message delivery system) sociologically, for what it said about the tailoring of political messages, or this particular message, in the mid-00s. The second I though was pretty strong, particularly in the second half.

  2. I'm going to be writing about An Inconvenient Truth in a few weeks so I will hold off on that for now. The Spike Lee is more of a mixed bag. I thought it had some very powerful moments, particularly when Lee got out of the way and just let the people speak. There's an interview that haunts me still with a man who had to take his aged mother in a wheelchair to the Superdome, where she died while waiting to get in. Very powerful.

    But overall the picture also felt strained to me in a way similar to how Springsteen's album The Rising felt strained. In both cases, I think the artists were under a lot of pressure (not the least of it self-imposed) to deliver something meaningful, and not surprisingly they choked. Both simply came too soon after their animating events.

    I know I may have been too quick to judge, especially on Levees (and I have not seen the follow-up, equally long doc yet either), and I also know I'm in the minority on this one. I do plan to revisit, and also check out the follow-up too.

    Thanks as always for your great comments Joel!

  3. In that case, I wonder what you make of 25th Hour? I feel that one may have come instinctively and been just indirect enough to avoid that pressure and straining you speak of. To me its easily the strongest fiction film to deal with what America felt like after 9/11.

  4. I don't know 25th Hour but just added. I still mean to make a project of Spike Lee one of these days. This might be the impetus. Looks interesting.

  5. It is; though flawed it's easily one of the films of the 00s that means the most to me.