Friends with Money (2006)
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Yes, this movie is dialogue-driven, and yes, many of the comments and even conversations will seem familiar. I enjoyed watching and hearing people I could genuinely relate to, discussing problems which, if not all directly paralleling my own concerns, I could at least understand. The movie deals with the role that money has in personal happiness and how it changes the dynamics of friendships, and effectively shows that while money is neither a universal panacea, neither is it the root of all evil. One of the interesting questions the movie raises is also what you focus on and contemplate when money isn't an issue for you.
I thought the movie accurately portrays many of the misgivings that women in their 40s experience, even when they're financially comfortable--dealing with Olivia's feelings of *invisibility*, Jane's quiet despair at the loss of the hopeful anticipation with which she used to view her upcoming life, Christine's external expression of her mental off-balancedness and gracelessness.
There are plenty of movies out there directed at 18-year-old skateboarding ninja-fiends--is it so wrong to make one for me?? I found the performances (especially Jason Isaacs' overbearing and emotionally heedless American husband) compelling and believable, and I enjoyed this movie a lot.
Nicole Holofcener's script and direction are merely OK: a medium-funny, not very insightful soap about three couples and a single woman (Jennifer Anniston), who is younger than her six friends, jobless, aimless, sloppy and rather annoying. Of the three husbands, only Simon McBurney is outstanding, but he really is, the English actor turning in a wonderful performance as a super-nice metrosexual.
Anniston does her best, which here works better than in any of her other roles. But "Friends with Money" is worth seeing because of - in order - Frances McDormand's huge star turn, with her unsuppressed rage turning into petty, ordinary rudeness; Catherine Keener, sleepwalking through affluence; and Joan Cusack, as a nice mega-rich woman without guilt or troubling thoughts.
The pace is glacial and steady; after a while, the film settles into a pleasant, moderately quirky flow, until a sudden and inconclusive end. Through it all, performances are to be enjoyed, and in McDormand's case, treasured. Never again will you be able go without washing your hair and not think of Frances McDormand.
While you'd think that the film is trying to state "happiness has nothing to do with how much money you have", the opposite appears to be true as the more elevated couples do have less problems. And, if fact, all of Aniston's problems are seemingly solved when she manages to snag a wealthy (albeit slacker) guy herself. While the three married couples do have children, they don't add anything to the story, as they seem more like convenient accessories than meaningful relations. While that may be a creative choice, the fact that it runs across all three couples identically makes me inclined to believe it's just sloppy, two-dimensional screen writing. None of the story lines are brought full circle and the entire exercise feels like a long death march towards irrelevance. Several interesting notions are addressed, but none closely examined or fully developed. While there are poignant moments and some nice creative decisions (i.e. allowing the actors to look their age), this genre has been mined before to better results (i.e. "Grand Canyon").
This movie was highly recommended to us by a friend. She loaned us her DVD to watch it (she actually bought it). After seeing it, I think my wife and I are going to be looking at our friend in a whole new way. What did she see in this thing? If you have it, save it for a rainy day when you have no other DVD's to watch, the TV is out, and there are no books or board games. Even then....
On the other hand, what makes it watchable are the performances.
Jennifer Aniston does her best work since "The Good Girl" (2002). She still has the best chance of the "Friends" cast to have a sterling film career, if she continues doing work like this - at least playing characters like Olivia. She should stay away from playing femmes fatale - her performance in last year's dismal "Derailed" was ample proof she's not ready to venture into Stanwyck or Fiorentino territory, yet.
But Aniston has a fine sense of finding that line between comedy and drama without pushing either one too far. Her Olivia is a believable person who just has incredibly lousy taste in men - thus far. Watching the hurt and disappointment on Aniston's face when Mike's (Scott Caan) true character comes out shows this woman's got talent.
Mike actually might be this film's most intriguing and interesting character. Caan's very good in the role and just when you think you like him, he does something despicable.
Holofcener's film centers around a group of friends, most of whom are affluent, if not stinking rich. The exception is Olivia. And throughout the film, Holofcener unveils their pains, insecurities and flaws.
Joan Cusack plays the guilt-ridden wealthy woman well and Catherine Keener, again, proves why she remains so incredibly under-rated. Here's an actress who can take small moments in a film and turn them into unforgettable ones. Keener's so completely compelling and honest in her performance. Christine's discussions with her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), never ring false thanks to two strong performances.
The weak link in the film really is Frances McDormand's Jane. This isn't the wonderful McDormand's fault. Trouble is, Holofcener paints McDormand's Jane as such a one-dimensional person - a woman who turns her suppressed rage into a rather annoying persona. Holofcener never bothers to penetrate the surface of Jane's problems. We just know she's angry and that's all we see of her. It's a shame because a woman of McDormand's infinite acting talents deserved a much richer character.
"Friends With Money" seems rather superficial at times because, unlike Holofcener's previous two films, this one simply skirts the surface of the characters. With the exception of Olivia and, to a lesser extent, Christine, we never see other sides to these people.
There's more to their stories. Much more. But Holofcener shows no interest in going there.
It is great to see that the cast isn't made up of teenage girls (or 30 year-olds playing teenage girls). The actors and the characters here are grown-ups, and they are not glossed-up in the manner of a typical Hollywood film. But there just isn't enough relevance or comedy or drama or anything to support a feature film. So why did this movie get made? Don't know. Why see it? No reason there either.
What we can appreciate is some very fine performances; from Cusack's very restrained socialite, a woman who seems to be unable to cope with the wealth she owns. She appears to be normal, but she's pretty much limited by her standing. Her husband, a lesser character, appears to be more true to his social class, and he makes no apologies for his social position. Then, we have McDormand's neurotic designer, who is now losing control and is sinking into some very strange psychological episodes. There is not much of an explanation, and it's very frustrating to be amused or concerned by her problems. Still, McDormand does a very capable and entertaining job with her character. The standout is Anniston, who normally doesn't register much in her "star" turns, but here, as she did in "The Good Girl", she shines because she manages to keep her character real and believable. Her dissatisfaction with her actual situation is a cross to bear, and her bad luck in her relationships is something we can find at least believable. She knows these characters and has learned to survive in their immediacy, but she truly understands she will always be an outsider.
One of the most frustrating aspects in this film is how short and underdeveloped it seems by the time it is over. Maybe, as I mentioned before, it remains true to its ambivalent nature. Here is what might have started as an in-depth analysis of what it is to be rich, but in the end feels like a sloppy job. It moved well, shined at moments, and suddenly, it stalled. Is there a sequel in the works? I would certainly like to know where this is all going to end.
There are several themes here: forty-something women's crises (Jane, Christine); a single woman's aimlessness and passivity (Olivia); men who either seem gay, or are creeps, like Franny's personal trainer Mike (Scott Caan), whom she sets up with Olivia, and who is rude and exploitive toward Olivia; Christine's husband, who can't be nice to Christine -- though she can't be nice to him, either. And money. It's always there as an issue.
A pivot point is the pet fiction in American social comedy that friends stay together even when their fortunes come to vary widely. To distinguish her people from each other, Holofcener resorts to something like the eighteenth-century comedy of humors, where a character is dominated by a single trait or quirk: Olivia is obsessed with skin lotions and will even steal to get them; Jane picks fights with strangers and won't wash her hair; Christine is always hurting herself by accident. Franny's rich husband is almost invisible, except to insist on spending money, and he is the best man. He isn't possibly gay either.
Besides the married-men-who-seem-gay theme, there's a sequence when Olivia allows the boorish personal trainer to accompany her on her housecleaning jobs, where he lounges around, and then demands from her, and gets, a cut of her pay. Finally he gives her a kinky maid's uniform and orders her around in it on a job, a prelude to sex. Only at the end of this episode when she follows him and sees he's dating somebody else in the evenings, does Olivia decide to stop seeing this creep.
What is one to make of such a movie? It's an opportunity for some amusing character acting, and McDormand and Cusack and McBurney stand out. Anniston is well cast as the slightly depressed, rudderless but still independent female, who somehow carries herself well enough to be accepted by her well-off comrades -- though Franny and her husband agree that if she met Olivia now, she might not make the grade.
The rambling incidents and scattered emotions are united at the end by a conventional comedy device, a final public event that brings the main characters together, in this case a charity dinner for people with Lou Gehrig's disease. Franny and her husband have bought a table and Jane provides the women with dresses from her collection. Jane washes her hair for the occasion. Christine comes without her husband because they're breaking up. Having gotten rid of the unpleasant personal trainer, Olivia comes with the slob customer, and his revelation afterward in the car and in bed that sloppy personal habits and "problems" aside, he is so rich he need not work, promises a solution to her problem: she, like her friends, will have money. But this is decentralized -- really center-less -- and clearly TV-influenced plotting. In traditional drama, the characters' lives would dovetail neatly in the end; in farce, the couples would recombine in amusing ways. Instead here, the characters have just been moved around a little, like checkers on a board in a game that ends in a draw. The episodes have the staccato separations that remain in cable television dramas even when there are no advertisements to interrupt them.
There are some interesting -- and repellent -- examples of bad behavior: the self-centered personal trainer; Jane's rude aggressions in public; Christine's and her husband's mean slurs during their fights. But unlike Neil LaBute, Holofcener doesn't show how moral failures or failures of will ruin relations between the sexes. She likes to play with our expectations. The slob customer is jobless, and he bargains Olivia down for the cleaning from $100 to $65, and then turns out be rich. The Aarons make us think Jane's husband really will turn out to be gay -- he tells her in bed, "You're my best friend." But in the end both the gay theme and the money theme seem like red herrings. Are the gay-seeming men a critique of machismo? Is money a source of happiness when there's enough of it? This movies hasn't got answers. But what I'm wondering is whether it has any questions. TV writing can be very good, as Sex and the City and Six Feet Under (two Holofcender has written for), Oz, The Sopranos, and various other programs show. But it doesn't always translate well into the single vessel of a movie.