It’s always interesting to watch a film that’s been ridiculously over-hyped after the pomp and circumstance has finally blown over and all you’re left with is the question: Does this film live up to all its bloated, self-aggrandizing expectations?
Friends With Money generated a media melee when it opened the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Walking and Talking) has proven her ability to carve out intricate character studies of strong women, which distinguished her highly anticipated unveiling as the belle of the Park City ball.
But more likely, the sturm and drang was caused by Holofcener’s leading lady, Jennifer Aniston, whose appearance on the red carpet cemented her status as a post-apocalyptic heroine rising above the blight of the Brangelina baby bump. Braving the tabloid-churning flashbulbs as ‘New-and-Improved Single Jen,’ Aniston was all smiles and handshakes, posing for the paparazzo with a gaggle of her gal-pal co-stars in tow, who ostensibly were there to promote the movie.
But to the untrained gaze of the celeb-starved masses, it provided the welcome blast of Girl Power Aniston seemed to be lacking in her personal life. Who cares if it was a first-rate performance? The media ate it up, and gave that much more exposure to this plucky Amerindie film.
Aniston couldn’t have picked a more perfect role in which to curry sympathy and admiration, playing Olivia, who’s described by her friends as “Not married. A pothead. A maid,” in that order. She cleans houses for a living, but to Olivia, it’s far less humiliating work than her previous job; teaching rich kids at a fancy private school who used to throw quarters at her when she drove up in her beat up Honda.
Olivia unceremoniously quits, citing intolerable conditions, much to the dismay of her girlfriends, who she’s known all her adult life. All three of her longtime friends are married, successful and rich. They see Olivia as a pet project. A worthy cause much like the thousand dollar charity fundraisers they attend.
Yet they seem to share little in common besides their privileged lives and the unsolicited sympathy and advice they liberally dispense to their less fortunate friend who isn’t able to sustain financial solvency or a meaningful relat ionship. Joan Cusack plays Franny, the richest of the bunch (both financially and emotionally), who has a wonderful husband, well-behaved children and regular sex. Her biggest problem is the expensive shoes that her husband buys for their daughter and which charity she should donate her millions to in any given year. In short, she lives a perfect life, and as pretty as this picture may be, it’s hardly believable.
Cusack does what she can to breathe life into Holofcener’s two-dimensional character, but sadly, Franny fails to ring true. Concerned about her friend’s sad state of affairs, Franny fixes Olivia up with her trainer, Mike, played to loutish perfection by Scott Caan. Mike accompanies Olivia to the houses she cleans, has sex with her in each of them, and demands a cut from her wages, which she questionably hands over.
Friends With Money makes up for such nagging details with a dazzling performance by Frances McDormand who plays Jane, a successful fashion designer who rages against the machinery of the ill-mannered. She loses her mind when people tailgate, steal parking spaces or barge in line at Old Navy. Luckily, Jane has Aaron, her effete, doting husband who all her friends believe to be gay. As one friend bluntly states, “It’s like a person with a tree growing out of his head and no one sees it.”
After she embarrasses her meek husband by launching into a rant at dinner when the waiter goes AWOL, Aaron uncharacteristically puts his foot down, pointedly asking her, “What horrible injustice was done to you that you have to act that way?” It’s this type of honest dialogue that infuses the film with a welcome realism. Yet like Olivia, some of Jane’s characteristics just don’t add up. She’s a powerful, outspoken woman, pointing a fiery finger at injustice in her quest to instill fairness. Yet inscrutably, she’s too tired to wash her hair, reasoning that it will only get dirty again.
Holofcener’s longtime muse, Catherine Keener, plays Christine, a screenwriter, who works from the home she’s renovating with her husband David, writing and developing projects. Yet she’s unable to communicate with her partner in life and work. It turns out David isn’t the kindest of people – telling Christine “all the crap you’ve been eating is starting to show on your ass.” What’s worse, he never bothers to ask if she’s ok after she has another one of her accident-prone mishaps. Christine realizes that it’s not too much to ask to be with someone who will express a modicum of concern for her well-being. When her husband begs to differ, Christine finally makes the long-debated decision to leave him. While some may argue that this is not nearly a good enough reason, it’s these small things that amount to a very big deal in Holofcener’s world.
Friends With Money is the type of film that could easily be classified as an urbane chick flick, with smart, cool, self-possessed women succeeding in the cutthroat landscape of L.A. Yet the way these women act in specific situations is somewhat puzzling. Why would Christine suddenly leave a man who was exactly the same when she married him? Why would Jane, a fashion designer who expends an inordinate amount of energy in fighting for what’s right in the world – and who works in an industry where appearance is tantamount – not have the strength to engage in her own personal hygiene? It’s also not readily apparent why Olivia would mutely submit to giving her lazy, selfish boyfriend a cut of her wages when she was quick to disavow the humiliation she suffered at the rich private school she previously taught at. These are the type of contradictions that keep popping up throughout Friends With Money.
Holofcener provides the black and the white, but doesn’t allow much room for gray in her canvas. Yet what Holofcener lacks in creating probable cause and effect is largely forgiven with sharply drawn characters, cutting dialogue and scenes that resonate. A thought-provoking film that looms large long after the red carpet has been rolled up and the tabloids have moved on to the Next Big Scandal.