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Friends With Money

Reviewed By PaulBryant
Posted 04/14/06 20:39:48

"A study in bickering."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Nicole Holofcener’s Friends With Money is a harmless comedy in the worst sense of that adjective. Although the writer/director does percolate some cheap laughs via what must be some sort of bargain-basement comedic-eyedropper in hopes of every now and then restoring our dormant brains to consciousness, the main objective of Friends With Money is to comment on the separation of classes in the capitalist bliss of Los Angeles. If Holofcener had simply allowed herself to be content with writing a movie that allowed a few brief moments of chuckling instead of trying to make sweeping statements about contemporary American life, the film's "harmlessness" wouldn't have been so offensive. Unfortunately, all that stands in for commentary is a lot of bourgeois bickering and middle-aged listlessness. Let the fun begin…

I’m sure you’ll all be quite astonished to hear Jennifer Aniston doesn’t have the range to invigorate an extremely weak script with a much-needed jumpstart, but one would assume Catherine Keener, Francis McDormand, and Joan Cusack would make up the difference and then some. Nevertheless, Holofcener’s loquacious telling of a tale of three affluent married couples and their single-and-struggling seventh wheel (Aniston, naturally) concludes little of anything.

The film starts at the dinner party thrown for Francis McDormand’s 40-some-odd birthday, which the seven main characters celebrate in a swanky Los Angeles restaurant. If the latest pop culture trends have taught us anything, it is that birthdays are no fun when you are in your forties, and Friends With Money has been a particularly astute disciple of pop culture. Consequently, McDormand is swamped in an angry depression because of her advancing age and several other psychological maladies; yet her distress belies the fact that she’s married to a handsome, caring, sensible fellow with whom she’s produced a bouncy young son – hardly what one would call dark clouds of domesticity. Her husband, Frank, is what we’ve come to define (pop-culturally) a metrosexual, but, of course, all the other friends think his lisp and personal grooming habits mean he’s gay.

Two of those friends are Franny (Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann), the wealthiest of the friends-with-money, and the most absurdly happy. Though their money doesn’t seem to have bought them their love, it certainly makes everything run smoother. On the other hand there is Christine (Keener) and her screenwriting-partner/husband David (Jason Issacs). They are the most preposterously good-looking of the friends-with-money, but neither gorgeousness nor money can buy them love, and the report is that they haven’t had sex in a year. C’est dommage!

Then there is Aniston’s pot-smoking, always-a-bridesmaid Olivia. She quit her job as a teacher at a private school because the rich kids made fun of her Volvo, is floundering about for a decent guy to share her life with, and is now cleaning houses for a living. C’est dommage, aussi.

Of course, the other friends feel desperately sorry for Aniston’s unlucky-in-love predicament and penniless day-to-day scrounging, and do their best to offer advice they probably aren’t qualified to give. Franny sets Olivia up with her personal trainer Mike (Scott Caan), who turns out, unsurprisingly, to be an unconscionable bastard. So much does Holofcener want you to know Mike’s a bastard (while she also kills a second bird in pointing out how much Aniston is a pushover) that she has Caan flirt with another girl on his and Aniston’s first date, and then later has him demand a cut of her pay when he accompanies her on her housekeeping gigs.

In any case, you probably get the picture by now. She’s a doormat; he’s an alpha-male; two couples aren’t made ebullient by large paychecks; and one couple tries to hold the rest together with dinner parties. This is about as deep as the characterization of these seven human beings will get.

So, for lack of superior reasons for what her characters do, Holofcener is forced to show their varying stages of psychology through behavior. Thus, the development of Catherine Keener’s character is relegated to, ironically, to a steady diet of toe-stubbing. Cusack’s is shown to be a drip because she looks silly lifting weights. McDormand screams at everyone who passes into her field of vision like a character from Paul Haggis’s Crash without the racism. And though the husbands are sensible in thinking that the wives might be a touch too neurotic to bother with, it is clear Holofcener doesn’t much care for their (probably more interesting) stories.

In keeping with this lack of inquiry into the men, the subplot of Frank’s possible homosexuality is given slight development, but is then truncated before we can discern whether he’s a) gay, or b) just a really nice guy who likes to go to movies and have dinner with other really nice guys. The fact the Holofcener proposes this subplot and then peppers dozens of gay jokes about Frank throughout the film, and yet eventually dismisses the whole development before anything has been concluded is indicative of how obtuse is her treatment of the male leads.

But males aside, the film is clearly meant to act (partially) as Aniston’s latest audition tape to a North American audience of casting directors who want to see if she’s got the chops to vault herself beyond Friends’ Rachel Green and into something a little more…less brain-dead. Unfortunately, though she is able to disappear into the role of Olivia better than I ever thought her tabloid omnipotence and syndicated ubiquity would allow, the role she disappears into is best described as beyond-cipher. The only thing she’s got going for her is that she is the film’s down-to-earth nucleus from which we are able to glimpse the spinning electrons of frivolous high-society types who go to fundraising soirees for ALS (which they think are benefits for the homeless) while they dream of their next double-tall, half-caff, non-fat, low-fructose, extra-hot, coffee-flavored energy-supplement. But gosh darnitt if this paradigm doesn’t get old real fast.

The closest we get to feeling empathy is with McDormand’s high-priced dressed designer, and her case would hardly cultivate identification were it not for our being so deprived of it elsewhere. She is as mad as hell (and, of course, doesn’t feel she has to take it anymore), but despite all her high-pitched yelling at line-jumping customers and sorrowful boo-hooing about how she doesn’t feel like washing her hair anymore, we never get the impression that she’s particularly upset at anything – other than, perhaps, that she doesn’t have anything much to be upset about. Clearly not a rational thinker (or, really, a thinker at all), she doesn’t seek out any meaningful advice or even consult the latest Cosmo-quickfix, and so dithers around from home to the mall, then to the school to pick up her son, and eventually back home again, looking her frumpiest with a big listless chip on her shoulder.

I suppose Holofcener’s point here is that once people are reduced to simply buyers and sellers and breeders and chauffeurs, they inevitably lose a sense of meaning in their life. Fair enough, but if this is really so, wouldn’t those buyers do the buyer’s thing and shell out for some Prozac at the local drugstore? Or, conversely, wouldn’t they do the seller’s thing and reacquaint themselves with their passion for their work? Or, thirdly, wouldn’t they do the breeder thing and dredge up another capitalist spawn-child before biological midlife drains the well once and for all? Or, lastly, with their well documented command of the SUV, wouldn’t these folks do as Peter Gabriel suggested people do when they want to run away, and simply drive off in their cars?

Those are but four forks in the road Holofcener could have taken – the fact that she investigates none of them with any profundity, and proffered no juicy morsel to fill the blank space left by their absence, is the major reason not to bother with the film.

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