Note: Portions of the review appeared on Cinematical during the Sundance Film Festival, as part of this article.
Friends with Money stars Jennifer Aniston as an unhappy, 30-something, pot smoking maid who can't stop stalking her married ex. Like writer/director Nicole Holofcener's previous films, Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money is an astutely observed relationship dramedy, painfully funny even as it burns. As Holofcener's unhappily unmarried heroine, Olivia, Aniston – a one-note actress, but virtuoso-good at that note – acquits herself more than admirably, considering the film began shooting the day after news of her seperation from Brad Pitt leaked to the press, The timing could maybe not have been more cruely ironic: the role requires Aniston to convince us that she's a loser. Watch for a key moment, about three quarters in, where a romantic rival tells Olivia to "go get [her] own husband." It's not hard to imagine the real-life motivations Aniston used to fuel Olivia's profanity-laden response.
It's not hard to see why the role would appeal to Aniston, who has yet to pull off a big-screen acting triumph in a
film that anybody actually saw. Essentially, she's allowed to stretch her range in the company of about six excellent
actors without sacrificing vanity -- as written, Olivia is slightly younger and, at the risk of sounding
redundant, prettier than her three wealthy, married girlfriends (played to perfection by Catherine Keener, Frances
McDormand and Joan Cusack). Surrounded by settled, absurdly monied 40-somethings, Olivia doesn't understand why friends
like Frannie (Cusack) will spend $10,000 on a table at a benefit for a disease they can't even place, but won't lend her
$1800 to pursue her latest career whim. Her friends in turn don't understand why Olivia can't meet a nice guy and settle
down -- or at the very least, get a real job. In a line typical of Holofcener's incredible ear for contemporary
verbiage, a friend's husband hears that Olivia is working as a maid and wonders aloud, "Is that, like, hip now?
Cleaning houses? Like a zen, so-unhip-it's-cool?" For her friends, Olivia's poverty is more than an
inconvenience -- it's a social ill that an attitude adjustment could cure. Knowing that no outlook alteration is
going to pay her bills, Olivia longs for Frannie's comparatively easy, old-money lifestyle. She settles for screwing
Frannie's personal trainer.
The most embarrassing thing in the world for an adult woman is to lose control of one's life to the point where "Are you okay?" becomes a greeting – to the point where your future becomes everybody else's problem. For the most part, Aniston nicely underplays the role, which seems wise: with Olivia's habitual phone stalking and cosmetics-counter scamming and on-the-job shagging, just a slight switch in tone could have sent the whole film over-the-top. As it is, Olivia's given an unacceptably implausible end to her narrative arc, which, for a Holofcener film, is surprising. One of the things that makes this director's work so satisfying is that she refuses to insist that her characters become better people before we check out of their lives -- we're simply made to understand that they had lives before we came in, and they'll go on without us. The narrative curve of a Nicole Holofcener film is never an arc so much as it is a gentle wave. For the most part, this genuinely life-like rythym pervades Friends as well as her early films; it's all the more unsatsifying, then, when Aniston's character is forced to (seemingly artificially) grow and learn and change.
We're not exactly drowning in films about the petty problems of forty-year-old women these days (although one wonders why -- there certainly are enough of them running studios), and on that score, Holofcener pulls few punches. Her actresses -- even Aniston -- look their age, and McDormand's portion of the plot is more or less about midlife body crisis. Early in the film, McDormand's character, Jane, turns 43, and despite her younger, handsome, possibly gay but extremely loving husband, she is extremely uncomfortable with her aging body. When pressed on sudden distaste for personal grooming, Jane stares off into space and mutters, "It's like we're all just waiting around to die." Just five or six years older than Olivia, and certainly better off in some ways, she's held out as the younger woman's worst case scenario. Friends with Money is set in a world in which sex and money are primary, and entangled, concerns: if you have the latter, you can buy lots of time with which to be neurotic about the former.
Friends is full of good performances, and Aniston's, whilst more than proficient, surely doesn't deserve to be saluted in lieu of Keener's, or Jason Isaac's. Friends' real triumph is in its writing and direction, and one hopes Holofcener -- a brutally underrated auteur, who has never made a film for a studio -- will soon see the praise she deserves.