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Olivia: I'm a…maid. What?
It's a small independent film with Jennifer Aniston (Friends), Joan Cusack (High Fidelity), Catherine Keener (Capote), and Frances McDormand (Fargo). Friends With Money is the kind of film actresses flock to, because of a sharp script and a chance to work with a notable director like Norcole Holofcener (who helmed the smartly observed art house hits Lovely and Amazing and Walking and Talking). This is chance to see big name women acting without any studio gimmicks, hackneyed romantic comedy plots, or test-audience retooled endings. I hope you've come for intelligent dialogue and wry observations on the relationships of women, because that is what Friends With Money is all about.
Facts of the Case
Four best girlfriends in Los Angeles have reached a certain age where their lives are becoming cemented. Three of the four are financially well off, but Olivia (Aniston) is struggling with what she wants to do. She's single, addicted to pot, and working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her teaching job. The other three are married, affluent, and take pity on their wandering friend, even though their lives are just as complicated and unfocused. The narrative follows all of the women in different combinations as they try and figure out what life means as it moves in to middle age.
This is the kind of movie Jennifer Aniston should be doing. She's quite good as a down on her luck gal drifting through life aimlessly. She proved this years back with the equally impressive The Good Girl, and here she reinforces it. Olivia is a portrait of desperate isolation, and one wonders if Aniston doesn't relate on many levels. Sure Jennifer is beautiful, rich, and famous, but after a public breakup with Brad Pitt is she happy? That question unfortunately haunts Friends With Money, and made a minor media event since it was released shortly after the scandals in the actress's personal life. What a pity, because this is some of her best work to date. She gives an honest, raw performance which resonates throughout. Pathetic is her strongest role to date, and that's surprising given her sunny disposition on Friends. Who knew she could play tortured and degraded with such aplomb? The most fascinating relationship emerges when her character hooks up with a personal trainer (Scott Caan, Ocean's Eleven) who takes advantage of her horribly.
Aniston is not alone in this impressive cast comprised of a dream team of character actor women in Hollywood. Frances McDormand invents a successful fashion designer who is just about to hit menopause, and is losing her grip on what life is about. She makes minor confrontations major, and stops washing her hair. Also of note is her husband (Simon McBurney, The Manchurian Candidate remake), who acts a little too effeminate for anyone to believe he is simply a metrosexual. Catherine Keener bitches her way through the part of a woman on the verge of divorce from her spouse (Jason Isaacs,Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) who she also works with writing screenplays. Finally there is Joan Cusack, who seems to have no problems other than that her husband (Greg Germann, Ally McBeal) refuses to think there are problems anywhere in the world.
The DVD presentation of Friends With Money is first rate. The transfer is clean and well-rendered with nice flesh tones and appropriately drab colors to reflect a world where inertia is the order of the day. We get a handful of featurettes with the actresses talking about how they came in to the project, and how much they admire the script. Also included is a great commentary featuring the director and producer revealing how the project was executed from financing to post production. Sony certainly gives Friends With Money the attention it needs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only problem with Friends With Money is it comes from a director with an incredible track record for searing comedies that illuminate the female condition. Nicole Holofcener wrote this script quickly, and it might have benefited from more time in development. She asks interesting questions, but never answers them. Does money lead to happiness? Do friends judge each other on finances? Friends With Money has smart as hell dialogue, but the plots never move forward. It's one great conversation after the next searching for events to tie them together, and nothing ever happens. Did she crank this one out too quickly? It feels half baked in comparison to Lovely and Amazing and Walking and Talking. Perhaps she's worked on The Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City too often.
A stretch for believability comes when you observe the dynamics of the friends. It's fun to see Aniston play the underdog when you consider she is the richest actress in this group. But there is something puzzling about her casting. Jennifer seems awfully young to be a contemporary of the other women, and its hard to imagine how her character entered this tribe. We get no idea how the four girlfriends met, or why these bonds are so tight. You feel like these people could drift away from each other easily, so there needs to be a rationalization why they stick together. Unfortunately we're not given any reasonings, and so the movie feels unreal, asking us merely to accept that these women rely on each other for support.
Friends With Money is a film you come in to for the performances, a chance to see women talking about smart topics and ruminating on life. It's stunning to see all of these great performances in one story. The rub is the narrative never moves anywhere. I'm a fan of smart dialogue, so Friends With Money was an enjoyable experience. Still, I wondered if anything would happen of significance. I was disappointed to realize the conversation would be all I get.
Guilty of being a smart chick flick without a story. Friends With Money apparently never lend you any financial help, they just talk to you until you want to scream.
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