By Anna Merlan
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In Nicole Holofcener's first feature, 1996's Walking and Talking, the writer-director warmly portrayed an adult female friendship, nudging at emotional issues without resorting to shtick or melodrama. Five years later, Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing attempted to do the same for a family of women but with wildly different results: Virtually every character was superficial, narcissistic, petulant, depressed or all of the above. It was hard to care what happened to any of them.
Friends With Money, Holofcener's new film, is smart, patient and ruefully funny. With crisp writing and wry performances, it leads us into a real world populated with unaugmented women, where people do and say recognizably human things--albeit in expensive cars in Los Angeles. But Friends also resists depth. Through its series of vignettes, it captures four women (and five men) in distinct moments of midlife, dramatizing their feelings and exposing their failings even as they try to hide them. Yet because the film never digs too far into any single person's world, it doesn't build toward much. There's a breakthrough at the end, but its importance is muted by the listlessness of the character who experiences it; when a fuzzy depressive comes briefly into focus in the bedroom, does anyone hear?
Jennifer Aniston plays Olivia, the youngest and least established of the four longtime friends. Olivia, in fact, is in a wicked funk--cleaning houses for a living and phone-stalking a married man. Her companions are far better off, at least financially. Christine (Catherine Keener) and screenwriting partner/husband David (Jason Isaacs) are adding a second story to their large home. Franny (Joan Cusack) and husband Matt (Greg Germann) have donated $2 million to their daughter's "Shabbat Shalom" school, for lack of a better idea. And Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful fashion designer with an adoring husband (Simon McBurney). At a birthday dinner for Jane, Olivia is the only single woman--and the only one without a career or money. Sure, crocodile tears, but remember: This is L.A. And no matter what your subculture, it's hard when your friends have amassed status symbols beyond your grasp.
Of course, every ointment has its fly. Christine and David are on the brink of divorce. Jane is perpetually poised to snap, hurling her unexamined rage at waiters and clerks. Aaron, her loving husband, is probably gay (his abs say yes). And Franny and Matt--well, they're supposed to be happy, but you can't quite buy it, perhaps because Franny has a way of shrugging off marital squabbles instead of addressing them. As the film plays out, the cracks in the porcelain emerge, both within the couples concerned and as a topic of conversation among the others.
In fact, that's one of the maneuvers Friends With Money has nailed: talking about others as a means of distraction from oneself. Every time two people in the film near conflict, they veer away by discussing (and evaluating, and analyzing) someone else. That's not cynical so much as it's honest: We all use whatever tools we have to avoid problems, including the lives of our friends. And indeed these characters are friends; when things turn to shit for Christine and David, Jane and Aaron step up. It's just that what they have to offer is limited by the things about themselves they can't--or won't--acknowledge.
Aniston has a thankless job as Olivia. She does fine with it, but it isn't easy to bother about a character who can scarcely be bothered herself. (Friends With Money seems to have come at an appropriate time for Aniston--it was filmed immediately after her breakup with Brad Pitt--though the passel of paparazzi at the locations can't have helped.) Holofcener has a thing for depressives, and you pretty much either go with it or you don't. Keener and McDormand are given far more meat to work with, and they tear into it and chew. Cusack is her usual winsome self, calm and motherly, almost goofily content, or absent, whichever.
Holofcener is a funny kind of feminist. She gives us three fortysomething women with careers, marriages, children, homes, money--all the trappings of mainstream success--and never judges them for wanting those things. (If anything, it's Olivia, the one without, who is the object of pity.) Yet there is a subtle undercurrent, an ongoing question about what these women really have and whether they're brave enough to look beneath it. Maybe this is a Los Angeles brand of feminism, where the empowerment never strays too far from film or money. And maybe this is what happens to women who think that, once they've acquired the requisite signifiers, everything else will take care of itself. Maybe their lives become superficial, or maybe they always were.
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