Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Friends with Money (movie review, Nicole Holofcener, Jennifer Aniston)

   Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” is the latest in a string of attempts to capture modern Los Angeles as filmed sociological monograph.  The Academy recently legitimated this sub-genre by awarding “Crash” the best picture Oscar, even though I personally felt that “Brokeback Mountain” was the stronger movie (they just don’t listen to me anymore!  Of course, they never did).  Other examples of the genre include Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon”, Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story”, Gurinder Chadha’s “What’s Cooking”, and Willard Carroll’s “Playing by Heart”.  Unlike “Crash”, Holofcener’s relatively brief (84 minutes) serio-comic examination of L.A. culture spends little time on race other than a funny moment when a downwardly mobile Olivia, played by Jennifer Aniston, tells her friend’s Hispanic housekeeper, “Hey guess what, I’m doing what you do now.  I’m a housekeeper too.”  

True to its title, Holofcener instead examines Los Angeles, a city whose aristocracy is determined by some mixture of money and celebrity without reference to its history or source, as it plays through a circle of female friends who all ask the question, “What the heck does any of this have to do with happiness?”

Holofcener who directed several episodes of “Sex and the City” and the excellent “Lovely and Amazing” has a way of getting the best out of her actresses and I suspect that played a role in getting an A-list female cast for this her third feature (the first was “Walking and Talking”).  Catherine Keener, who has been in all Holofcener’s movies plays the female half of a pair of married screenwriters who spend their work lives writing dialogue for a bickering soap-opera type couple while their own relationship slips into disinterest and then disdain.  In the meantime, Keener and her husband’s decision to remodel their house high rise style so they can view the ocean from their bedroom has upset the neighbors.

Academy Award winner Frances McDormand, (Fargo), appears as a successful fashion designer married to a man who everyone else thinks is in the closet.  In the meantime, she wanders Los Angeles in a constant state of simmering rage at offenses real and imagined and somehow has developed a fear of washing her own hair as she recognizes that her own success is built both on appearances and a kind of “game”.  

Joan Cusack, one of the best comic actresses in Hollywood, plays the wealthiest of the “Friends with Money” who is pulled into being someone she never intended to be by her husband’s and her own money.  Being the richest becomes both entrée to society and a barrier to true intimacy for her.

Finally, Jennifer Aniston, who is quite good at non-Rachel from Friends roles (The Good Girl, Rock Star, Office Space), gets the emotional center in this power ensemble of actresses (I almost said “heavyweight” but I saw Lovely and Amazing), as the friend who isn’t married, doesn’t have money, and who between and amidst joints and inappropriate boyfriends takes work as a housekeeper.  She also gets an odd subplot about a seventy five dollar jar of wrinkle cream.

I never did quite catch how Aniston fits into the circle of friends in that shes’s six to seven years younger than the others, but the script does an excellent job of illuminating the tensions and intricacies of group friendship.  As the friends meet, usually around food, a rough plot emerges around the question of whether or not Aniston has become too “different” from the group because her life circumstances do not include money and family.  As with other Holofcener movies though, the plot is not really the point.  

In “Lovely and Amazing”, Holofcener used the story of the mother getting liposuction as an opportunity to explore female self-image in a family that included an African-american adopted daughter, a very attractive actress (Emily Mortimer) who lacks the standard Hollywood romantic lead body, and an older sister whose husband is having an affair and is cast adrift emotionally.  In that movie Holofcener managed to comment effectively on the relationship between image, self-worth, and sense of self. One result was a very touching understanding that develops in the movie between Keener’s character and her adopted 10 year old African-American sister, Raven Goodwin (a great performance).  

While the performances and the set pieces in “Friends with Money” work well individually, I found myself frustrated by the seeming lack of development in any of the characters.  Instead, things simply happen.  Aniston’s salvation is pure happenstance.  McDormand and Keener’s characters move on but we never know exactly why other than they rather suddenly articulate their own frustrations.  Cusack’s character stays sort of blissfully untouched throughout. Fwiw, she’s great at playing characters who are unaware but emotionally centered at the same time.  If anything holds the movie together, it seems to be a commentary on the numbness that results from L.A.’s tendency to allow its wealthier citizens to remove themselves from the basics of life, cleaning, preparing food, spending time with children, and genuinely conversing.

“Friends with Money” is worth watching for the performances and some of its sharp observations about West Los Angeles as a place not built for emotional happiness.  Greg Germain, who more or less reprises his Ally Mcbeal role, is especially good at reasoning through the moral dictates of having money and staying friends with the less wealthy.  Simon Mcburney is also quite funny as McDormand’s metrosexual to the extreme husband (something of a splinter plot in the story).   Perhaps the size of the ensemble combined with runtime kept her from doing it, but Holofcener falls short of making a statement about friendship, money, or even Los Angeles. I also wondered if the studio pushed to market this as a comedy, which it really isn’t and if that shortchanged the film’s artistic integrity.

It’s frustrating to think of where the movie might have gone with the resources it was given, but there’s still more than enough there for me to recommend it.

other Chancelucky reviews


At 9/05/2006 03:20:00 PM, Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

My impressions of Friends with Money were much the same as yours .. after assembling such an incredible cast, how could she have put such little care into developing their characters .. I must say, though, that I simply loved Lovely & Amazing

At 9/05/2006 03:27:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Reel,

It was frustrating because I thought the movie set up really well then suddenly it was over and I was "wasn't something supposed to happen here?"

I agree "Lovely and Amazing" was good enough that we almost bought a copy.

At 9/05/2006 11:47:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kentucky Fried CL -- It's a chick-flick suprema -- what do you expect?

I can't take that many women in one place in real life. The pitch is too high. Are that many women really friends all at once in a clump in anything but a movie?

If the premise is essentially false, you lose the possibility of 'development' perhaps.

At 9/06/2006 08:36:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
you may be right about the premise makiung natural plot development impossible.

There must be chickflicks with memorable plots though.

At 9/06/2006 08:49:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do have too much pride to see anything more with Jennifer Anniston in it. I saw a piece with the Sublime Clive Owen and tho he is my favorite actor of All Time, I'm on the fence about whether I'd even see a Clive movie if Ms. Anniston was laboring in it. She tries so hard to not try hard that it's painful.

I'm sorry for your affliction, cl.

At 9/07/2006 12:55:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I thought you saw Derailed with Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston. Not a very good movie imo,

At 1/05/2008 08:19:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

I'm only a little late to seeing this, haha, and I agree with all your points. So there.

At 2/24/2009 12:06:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks, Dale.

I need one of things that tells me when I get comments about old posts. Just happened to find this today.


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