Friends Wtih Money

April, 2006, Drama

Friends With Money

Ever had a dish that just didn't live up to the quality of its ingredients, the ambiance of its surroundings and the reputation of its chef? (Crash, last year's best-picture Oscar winner perhaps?) Every so often, I have that reaction when leaving a theater after watching a much-anticipated film that doesn't quite turn out to be everything it should be. So it is with writer/director Nicole Holofcener's latest. Armed with the impeccable credential of her two previous gems, (Walking & Talking, Lovely & Amazing) this movie features a brilliant ensemble cast, (Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and T.V./ tabloid superstar Jennifer Anniston) and a screenplay that bristles with acidic, spot-on dialogue. It's flawlessly executed--so what keeps it from being a home run?

New York Times critic Manola Dhargis laments that Holofcener seems content to stay on the surface of her characters, implying that burrowing more deeply would lead to a real payoff…but that strikes me as slightly off-point. When you announce that you're going to tackle a subject as weighty as money and its ability to corrupt intimate friendships, you'd better have something more profound to say than do the characters presented here, however perfectly the actors invest them with credibility. 

Keener plays 1/2 of a husband & wife screenwriting duo, whose marriage seems based on continuous recrimination. Cusack's personal wealth prevents her from seeing more deeply into her own motivations while McDormand plays a dyspeptic dress designer whose loving but effete husband has her friends muttering "he's gay" behind her back. As for Anniston, (of the instantly likable persona and attractive good looks) she plays a pot-smoking ex-teacher turned part-time cleaning lady who spends her evenings calling her married, former lover only to hang up without saying anything to him. 

This quartet of friendships has apparently existed since college and Holofcener's script implies that their widely divergent financial status is now pulling them apart. Keener allows her husband to remodel their house with callous indifference to their neighbors' reactions then calls a halt after the damage is already done. Taking up with Cusack's physical trainer, Anniston allows him to sponge off her earnings while she dresses in a French maid's costume he's bought her for sex in the houses she cleans.  McDormand's latent hostility expresses itself in a lack of personal hygiene and confrontations with total strangers in parking lots and checkout lines. Yet these situations don't suggest that money's the basic problem; Keener, McDormand & Anniston simply don't like what they've become while Cusack's affluence has made her oblivious to what's really going on around her. Each one of these sharply etched women is fundamentally okay, but hungering for something more out of life without knowing what it is or how they might go about getting it. 

This focus on the rueful knowledge that reality isn't co-extensive with expectation worked beautifully in Holofcener's two previous films, but grounding that insight in notions of financial causation just doesn't ring true, despite the consistently appealing performances that grace this movie. Proof positive? You'll find it buried in the three husbands and two boyfriends Holofcener provides; despite crisp performances by a handful of talented actors, the males here serve only as comedic counterpoints to the women they're involved with; they have absolutely nothing to do with the dangers of disparate allocation of resources as they relate to the women's' relationships with one another.

A mere 88 minutes after its opening credits, Friends With Money stops; Anniston's in bed with a new boyfriend who "has issues" and she confesses she does too. That's it. Holofcener seems content to say that women, even educated, affluent ones, have problems that tend to express themselves in highly individualized and thus diverse ways. Is that fleeting glimpse into the obvious worth the price of admission?

That said, anything this sprightly, observant writer/director does contains lots of interesting bits and pieces; McDormand is always a delight to watch, Kenner's capacity to convey volumes with a single pained expression continues to amaze and both Cusack and Anniston burnish their trademark likeability. Simon Courtney does an amazing job as Madwoman's fey spouse while he-man Scott Caan, (James' son) makes as hiss-able a villain as any female could want as the narcissistic trainer. The lines Holofcener provides her characters makes Friends worth seeing even if the film as a whole winds up falling a tad short of robustly adding up to the sum of its parts.

 This one's flawed in concept perhaps, but certainly not in execution. 

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