I like Woody Allen, but I don’t love him, you know? I’ve seen many of his films, and have even enjoyed more than a few powerful or smart moments in them, though I think he’ll never top Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen writes off his narcissism with his religion, which is fine, but that doesn’t make his movies any more entertaining. He’s a master of the outsider observation, of stories that hang their hats on pain, of sprawling and talented casts seeking refuge in one of the few remaining outlets for adult actors to engage in mature fare, of using his flaws and failures to create a relatable protagonist; of any one of a dozen things that look good on paper but that somehow leave me cold. I was almost amazed when, the first time I saw Manhattan, I realized I was both invested in what happened and praying for it to end soon.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener got her start crewing for Allen, first as a production assistant on A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and then as an apprentice film editor on Hannah and Her Sisters, and she absorbed too much of his vanity and not quite enough of his charm. Her latest film, Friends With Money, is her best work yet, but it’s still a muddled story of wealthy women approaching middle age with nothing better to do than talk about each other. Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing was a stifling character study without any resolution or progress, a problem she’s half-heartedly addressed in Friends With Money: One or two of the minor plot strands wrap up, and at least one character takes a few baby steps toward something resembling a dramatic arc. But on the whole, the film is like one of the charity events its wealthy characters would be likely to attend: Entertaining enough, and temporarily diverting, but ultimately undone by its superficiality.
Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is the only woman in her group of friends who isn’t married: Christine (Catherine Keener) and husband David (Jason Isaacs) are screenwriters, Jane (Frances McDormand) and Aaron (Simon McBurney) each design clothing, and Franny (Joan Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann) don’t seem to do much of anything except buy their kids far too many Christmas presents. All three couples are well off, but Franny’s the richest, even going so far as to donate $2 million to her daughters’ school, an announcement that shocks the rest of the group, especially Olivia. Jane at one point refers to her as “Poor Olivia” because she’s unmarried, but her biggest defining trait is the fact that she’s broke and that her friends aren’t. Olivia used to be a teacher but quit out of an aimless generational apathy, and now works as a housekeeper, probably because it required the least amount of training. Olivia doesn’t so much make choices as watch them drift toward her or fade away; in case you weren’t able to guess, she smokes a good bit of pot in her off-hours.
Holofcener wants us to identify with these women through their wealth and status, which of course we do, because that’s how people relate to each other. Income is like intelligence in that people won’t necessarily quarrel over it but, among any group of friends, who earns what is always in the back of everyone’s head, as is the knowledge of who’s smartest. We seem to be incapable of interacting with each other without somehow quantifying that experience to some degree. But in Friends With Money, what really sets these four women apart is the way they deal with the men in their lives.
Christine and David live in a constant argument and are unable to write a single scene together without it devolving into a squabble. Jane is basically girlfriends with the effete Aaron, whom Christine suspects is gay. Franny and Matt are genial with each other, as if they’ve resigned themselves to a calm but dull life together. And the first time we meet Olivia, she’s actually using a vibrator discovered in a dresser in a client’s house, which is somehow one of the saddest of the many depressing moments we see Olivia experience. Olivia isn’t single by choice, but because being with someone would require just a bit too much effort. She’s still too stuck on an old boyfriend, now married, to move on, but she nevertheless agrees to let Franny to set her up with Mike (Scott Caan), an egotistical personal trainer. Mike even winds up accompanying her on a job and demands payment when he helps out; even more incredibly, Olivia actually gives him some of her money. Olivia’s too tired to do anything but take the abuse.
Mike’s a jerk, but that’s par for the course for Holofcener. Like more than a few female storytellers, she writes male characters that are either horny, naïve, insensitive, dumb, or any combination of the four. It’s easy to see why Christine and David are always arguing: He’s a sitcom-level clod. And it’s easy to see why Franny and Matt never fight: He has absolutely no personality, no characteristics other than being her husband. He’s a placeholder. And Aaron is obviously gay, something Jane either is comfortable with or will simply never realize. It’s a shame that Holofcener isn’t willing to give the men in her films the same consideration as her women. She could have crafted an accurate portrayal of adult relationships, but instead she’s just done a WASPy “Sex and the City” knockoff.
Aniston does a fine job, but Keener is sadly underused. She’s acted in all three of Holofcener’s features, and is to the director what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton, a muse and onscreen representative for the director. The 46-year-old Keener is funny, confident, graceful, complex, and the most enjoyable actress in the ensemble. She embodies the best moments of Holofcener’s sharp wit, though they’re too few and far between to sustain the rest of the film.
Holofcener does manage to get a few things right, though: namely people’s predilections to talk about their mutual friends’ problems when they want to dodge their own. The four women are rarely all together on screen, but all they seem to talk about is each other, including Christine’s lack of a sex life, Olivia’s slackerdom, and Aaron’s questionable sexuality. Unfortunately, talk is all they’re good for. Far from growing, Olivia doesn’t show the first signs of happiness — she doesn’t even smile — until she meets a slovenly guy who’s inherited a fortune, sensing a relationship that will let her continue her slide into obsolescence. This is Holofcener’s final, confounding joke: Instead of a moving relationship, Olivia wants the proverbial dead shark.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.
Friends With Money / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 15, 2006 | Comments ()