Sunday, January 21, 2007

Friends with Money (Holofcener, 2006)

Time for a review...

Friends with Money (Nicole Holofcener, 2006)

Nicole Holofcener obviously has some issues with depressed white rich American women- perhaps because she's one herself- because it seems to be all she can take it on herself to write about. I don't think it's possible to deny that Friends with Money is rather biased towards it's female characters- the men here are, in order of the negativity that the film gives them, angry, disgusting, effeminate and frivolous. I suppose it's redundant to say this, though, since, rather unusually for a Hollywood film, Friends with Money is both and directed by a woman, and the number of female auteurs in the world is distressingly little. But something about Friends with Money is a bit nasty, a bit self-centred- oh, please, moan yet again about your upper-crust depression! The main thing I find wrong with this film is that it seems to equate money to happiness- you could make a ranking scale of wealthiness of the four friends here, and then make a graph comparing it to happiness, and the results would be conclusive: dollars=contentment. Joan Cusack is the one with the big bucks here, and I suppose it says something about Holofcener's preoccupation with showing us these women's problems that she hardly has a storyline. Meanwhile, the film is virtually obsessed with Jennifer Aniston, who, surprise surprise, is the poor one of the group.

Friends with Money clearly thinks it's most valuable asset is Miss Aniston- from it's coy, built-up introduction of the actress amongst the standard introductory montage of all four lead characters (by contrast, the first thing we see of Cusack, Frances McDormand and Holofcener-stalwart Catherine Keener are their faces) to dressing her up in a French maid's outfit, Holofcener seems to want to flaunt it's most bankable star in every way it can, and it is perhaps a shame that Aniston never really repays the adoration poured upon her by her director. Barely a smile passes by Aniston's lips here, no chances to display the comic wit she has previously displayed, and she is even lacking the rather galling expression she introduced to good effect in 2002's The Good Girl.

If we were to go up the chain of wealthiness (and we shall), we would next find the worn display of Catherine Keener, who works as a screenwriter with her husband (Jason Isaacs) and is selfishly having a second story put on her spacious bungalow, not realising she is blocking the neighbour's view. Forgive me, Cathy, but when did a view become so important? Perhaps Holofcener's greatest crime here is giving Keener, who has starred in all of her films (she headlined the last one, the astute if uneven Lovely & Amazing), such a disparate part. In fact, Holofcener does this to pretty much every actor, unsurprising when you note that the film clocks in at a paltry 85 minutes, never fleshing out the various plots she introduces, and never giving much closure- so, is McDormand's husband (Simon McBurney) actually gay? Why is McDormand so angry? And what, exactly, was the purpose of Cusack and her husband (Greg Germann)?

I had much the same problem with Friends with Money that I did with Lovely & Amazing- each seemed to end permaturely, cutting everything off quite suddenly and leaving both characters and audience hanging in mid-air. However, while Lovely & Amazing, with it's more confined plot strands and fewer characters, made this sudden end quite effective- it was an effective snapshot of a family's unsatisfied lives- Friends with Money never even answers it's most basic questions, most notably this: how did Olivia (Aniston) ever become friends with these other women, all richer and older than she? Olivia seems so at odds with her friends, so different in status and goals, that it never really becomes apparent why they have her as a friend.

But thankfully, Friends with Money isn't completely worthless. There's some good stuff here, particularly in performance: from the understated performance of an underused Joan Cusack, some solid supporting work from Jason Isaacs and Simon McBurney, and, in particular, the sympathetic rage and tiredness of Frances McDormand. McDormand's character Jane is, for no apparent reason, a bitter and angry woman, yelling at people who park in 'her' space and who cut in front of her at an Old Navy counter. All this pointless behaviour could easily have made Jane highly dislikable, and indeed, there's little in the script to combat this- but McDormand's vulnerability and exasperation make Jane's angry comprehensible, even relatable. Oh, and I don't mean to be too critical of Holofcener- there are some good observations here, including Keener's shock at being shown what her extension is doing, and the awkward relationship between Olivia and the boorish Mike (Scott Caan), who 'helps' her with her cleaning jobs and then demands a cut of the pay, and avoids looking at her during sex.

But, ultimately, Friends with Money can't help seeming a tad redundant- we've seen most of this stuff before, even from Holofcener herself, and, despite the quality cast that's been gathered and the solid production work on display- costume is particularly adept, with the richest women dressing themselves down while dressing Aniston up- it all feels rather empty and light-headed. These friends may have money, and that might make them happier, but I doubt it'll have the same effect on their audience. Grade: C+

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