Friends with Money: Holofcener’s Female-Driven Tale, Starring Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, and Jennifer Aniston

In the modern fable Friends With Money, indie director Nicole Holofcener examines the shifting relationships between four women who have been friends all their lives, but when they settle into middle age their friendship is challenged by the growing disparity in their individual financial comfort.

This serio social satire, which was opening night of the 2006 Sundance Film Fest, marks Holofcener’s third probe into contemporary mores, with each film stamped by her unique sensibility and personal point of view.

Over the past decade, Holofcener has fashioned a trio of both moving and funny films about the bonds shared by women. Her 1996 debut, Walking and Talking, starred Anne Heche and Catherine Keener as two long time friends whose bond is comically and severely tested when one announces her pending marriage, causing the other to become petty and jealous.

The 2002 follow-up, Lovely and Amazing, again starred Catherine Keener (the director’s muse), this time with Brenda Blethyn and Emily Mortimer. Lovely and Amazing astutely explored women’s obsessions about their body image. Well-received, the movie earned Holofcener acclaim for her frank and assured look at key issues faced by women.

A social satirist, Holofcener finds pathos and humor in places that are uncomfortable, and in situations that are far from being glamorous.

A logical progression to her previous features, Friends With Money presents a poignant snapshot of the way women live today, when divisions created by class and money are affected by the unstoppable force of everyday life. Though intelligent, the movie walks a fine line between being brutally honest and earnestly uplifting, ultimately settling for the latter mode, particularly in its trite ending.

The friends with money are Frannie (Joan Cusack), Jane (Frances McDormand), and Christine (Catherine Keener). The three women share genuine concern for Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who’s unable to make a living or sustain a relationship. Holofcener fails to make clear how the women managed to become close friends in the first place, but for a while, we give her the benefit of doubt.

The first crisis within the relationships begins when Olivia quits her teaching job. Lacking any sense of direction, she takes to cleaning houses for a living. The ensuing tale shows how Olivia’s new status affects each of the three women, magnifying their own doubts about their identities, careers, and marriages.

A struggling single housemaid, Olivia drifts through each of her friends’ lives, at times avoiding the issue of money altogether, at others, accepting their generosity. Wealthy and married, the trio of femmes treat her like a charity case, and she begins to resent their constant pity and concern. Ultimately, Olivia finds satisfaction and stability from an unexpected source but her happiness is muted by the harsh reality of the suddenly disassembled lives of her friends.

In all of her films, Holofcener has shown an uncommonly keen eye for the texture of discourse between women of varied social statuses, finding both pathos and laughs in basically uncomfortable situations. Her movies present the more vulnerable, less glamorous sides of women that are not unlike the characters in the TV sitcom Sex and the City, on which Holofcener had worked.

In the new picture, Holofcener looks at female friendship and the socioeconomic divide in upscale Los Angeles. Friends With Money is both darkly funny and depressing, especially given Olivia’s penchant for manipulative and pointless relationships and her increasing difficulty in connecting with her friends.

It’s easy to admire the honesty with which Holofcener deals with issues of intimacy, friendship, and self-worth among women, her talent in constructing realistic and complex characters with warmth, humanity, and humor.

Also impressive is Holofcener’s avoidance of the manipulative and nasty tone and the female hysterics that have come to characterize most chick flicks, particularly those made by the studios. She treats all four of her subjects and their husbands with dignity and fairness. While nominally the film is about Olivia, we also get to know her friends and their husbands, and all three couples have funny and idiosyncratic moments.

Of Holofcener’s films, Friends With Money is the most ensemble-driven and the most ambitious but the least successful, for a number of reasons. The movie is too broad, a bit like TV, a possible result of Holofcener directing episodes for Sex and the City.

While the dialogue is always engaging, and the subplots mostly involving, Holofcener fails to reconcile the strands of the various storylines. The movie might be too episodic for its own good, and it might have too many characters (at least seven, if you count the husbands) for each to emerge fully fleshed.

Moreover, it’s never made clear how critical Holofcener the writer is in exposing the rich lives with their surface values and damaging results. At Sundance, some critics found Friends with Money too literal and broad, while others thought it was meandering. Is Holofcener trying to say that the lives of rich people are just as tough as those of poor people–despite their socio-economic station That money on its own is not an important avenue for achieving happiness

Friends with Money takes place in Los Angeles, and Christine and Jane are involved in the Hollywood scene through their work, but the film doesn’t dwells on the specificity of the California lifestyle. The story could have take place anywhere since the issues faced by the women are universal. The director has said that, “self-loathing, narcissism, and pain are not limited to L.A.” This may be true, yet you want the film to be more authentically grounded in the unique ambience of L.A.

Aniston does her best work since her 2001 indie, Miguel Arteta’s The Good Girl. For all her adorable quirkiness and glamour in the popular TV series Friends, Aniston’s talent may rest on her ability to play plain but sincere women with low self-esteem. But Aniston is a limited actress, and when surrounded with brilliant thespians like McDormand or Keener, her deficiencies become all the more glaring.

Keener as an uptight screenwriter, Cusack as an oblivious millionaire’s wife, and particularly McDormand as a cranky clothing designer, complement each other nicely. One of the film’s greatest pleasures derives from observing the chemistry among the three women, manifest in their ensemble acting.

Friends With Money is sporadically entertaining and always watchable, if also structurally flawed.  But in the end, I was left with a frustrated feeling, wanting the film to be deeper and more focused, or less accessible in a TV-like manner. Holofcener never convinced me how the four women had managed to become friends in the first place.