With Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing and now Friends With Money, writer/director Nicole Holofcener has emerged as a sharp-witted observer of the lives of dissatisfied American women.
Working on the indie scene rather than Hollywood, she's been able to turn out less sentimental and more uncompromising work than female writer/directors like Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give), covering the same territory at the big studios. She's also attracted the attention of some top-name actresses more interested in good characters than flattering roles.
That turns out to be somewhat of a problem in Friends With Money, a funny and occasionally poignant movie about a group of highly educated but self-centered West Los Angeles women concerned about career, family and personal fulfillment in an order they can't seem to get right. Basically, it's an ensemble-oriented character study about the manners and foibles of the rich and fashionable, with jokes built on biting observations about the way they live now.
But given the opportunity to cast Jennifer Aniston, Holofcener winds up somewhat straining the film's credibility in an effort to fashion a character for her. Aniston plays Olivia, an aimless and inchoately rebellious single woman who has given up a job as a teacher to become a maid. Apparently, she couldn't take the fact that rich kids at the private school where she worked gave her quarters as handouts because she only drove a Honda.
Olivia is a pothead who lacks ambition — she's most animated when finagling department-store cosmetics departments out of test jars of Lancome Resolution. It's a banal character who seems more a Hollywood-ish concoction than real, and she isn't particularly interesting to boot, especially given her weakness toward a crass muscle-bound boyfriend (Scott Caan) who likes to have sex with her in her clients' homes.
Yet Aniston, whose best acting on the big screen to date came in another indie film, The Good Girl, is good in the part. She reveals a flair for understatement, letting shifts in her gaze, quiet shrugs and turns of the head do much "talking" for her.
Olivia also gets a chance at redemption at the end, meeting a nice but weird guy seemingly out of a Mike Leigh movie (Bob Stephenson) who might not have Brad Pitt's looks but is a slacker-charmer nonetheless.
Olivia is the youngest, poorest and most lost of a group of otherwise-married women friends who include Franny (Joan Cusack), Christine (Catherine Keener) and Jane (Frances McDormand).
The wealthiest of the coterie is Franny, who, with her husband Matt (Greg Germann), has promised $2 million to a Jewish school and has bought a table at a splashy benefit for ALS disease. (Her friends keep thinking it's for the homeless.) Incongruously, she balks at giving Olivia $1,800 to get certified as a trainer. "You're my only friend who doesn't like to exercise and you're going to become a trainer?" she asks. (It's a plot hole that should have been plugged in a screenplay rewrite.)
Keener, who has been in Holofcener's two other films, plays a screenwriter whose work with her egotistical, passive-aggressive husband (Jason Isaacs) is so tension-wracked one instantly knows separation is coming. At his insistence, they're in the process of building a second floor to their modernist home even though it will destroy the scale of the houses on their street.
"You wanted a view — how the fuck else can you see the ocean from our bedroom?" he says, berating her. (It's one of Holofcener's better jabs at the bourgeoisie in Los Angeles and elsewhere, who are all too eager to create their tasteless McMansions.)
Keener typically has an ability to switch from tenderness and vulnerability to fiery sarcasm on a second's notice. She dares to be unlikable and gets away with it because the luminosity of her smile and the moonlike roundness of her face make her likable regardless. Here, however, Holofcener doesn't give her much of a chance to get nasty. As a result this isn't one of her more memorable roles.
That's because Holofcener has saved that part — the film's best by far — for McDormand as Jane, a designer of overpriced clothes. She's like a jet spitting out toxic fumes; one expects her to go ballistic at any moment. Her Jane is in an existential "Is-that-all-there-is?" funk about materialistic life, and has lost faith in shampoo and makeup to boot. She looks way older than her 44 years. She's also uproariously funny, maybe because she carries the shock of truth — and urban anger — on her shoulders so vividly.
For someone typecast as a women's director, Holofcener creates interesting male characters and gives them screen time. While some are heels (Isaacs and Caan), Jane's husband Aaron (Simon McBurney, who looks like Henry Gibson in his prime) is a benign, alluring creation. His cute looks and sweet and vaguely effeminate nature lead others to think he's gay. Men constantly are taken with him. He doesn't quite know what to make of it; he's almost apologetic.
Friends With Money is the latest indie film to feature an enigmatic ending that doesn't force all its loose ends into too-neat, contrived resolution. It seems these films are in touch with the serious-minded cultural zeitgeist right now, which might be why they're thriving with adult audiences while traditional dramas and comedies are struggling at the box office and at the Oscars. Grade: B