Thursday, April 20, 2006

Friends With Money

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener has a gift for exploring the inner lives of women and the relationships that challenge and sustain them. Particularly interested in how women rely on one another, both for emotional support and as yardsticks to measure their own progress or stagnation, she makes movies that feel like a conversation with an old friend: affirming, engaging, and entertainingly gossipy, yet studded with thought-provoking insights.

If her movies haven’t gotten the attention they deserve, it’s probably because they’re basically art-house chick flicks, and people like to sneer at chick flicks. But brushing off movies like this is often just another way of belittling women.

The action in Holofcener’s movies is almost all talk. The things her characters do are never remarkable, though they sometimes convey a shock of recognition. But mostly her characters talk and talk, hurting and healing each other’s feelings while constantly, even obsessively, taking the temperature of their relationships.

In distilling the poignancy from everyday pleasures and indignities, Holofcener risks seeming as if she’s talking about nothing at all, and indeed some people have always found her movies too tediously lifelike. I never did before, but her latest sometimes feels a bit shapeless even to me.

The theme of Friends With Money, if there is one at all, seems to be how the friends of the title are adjusting to middle age. Holofcener’s characters are growing up along with her. The two best friends in Walking and Talking (1996) were young women not long out of college, who grow apart and then come back together after one gets engaged, leaving the other to feel neglected. The two biological sisters in Lovely and Amazing (2001) are a little older, starting their careers and their families – though their adopted sister, who seems more self-possessed and mature than either one of them, is only eight. The four best friends in Friends With Money, some of whom Holofcener says were based on friends of her own, are in their late 30s and early 40s. Settling into their lives, they’ve lost the youthful illusion that anything is possible.

Jane (the wonderfully acerbic Frances McDormand) is in a full-blown, depressed midlife crisis, railing at strangers and refusing to wash her hair because she just can’t see the point. Christine (Catherine Keener) lives in denial, building a huge addition to her house while her marriage falls apart. Only sweet, spacey Franny (Joan Cusack) seems to have no complaints, content with her life as a well-heeled housewife with a husband and son she loves.

The friends talk about each other almost as much as they talk to each other, and the subject of their conversation is usually Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), the only one of the four with no money. Olivia is still unmoored, drifting from one masochistically inappropriate relationship to another, working as a maid, and toying with the notion of becoming a personal trainer even though she hates to exercise.

As usual in Holofcener’s movies, a slow accretion of detail leaves you feeling that you know – and care – quite a lot about the characters by the end. This time around, though, some notes are sounded too loudly, as if there were one thing about each person that the director wanted be sure we would notice. Olivia is forever cadging expensive anti-aging makeup she can’t afford; Jane keeps picking fights; people keep assuming that Jane’s husband is gay; and Christine keeps hurting herself in household accidents and waiting for someone to ask if she’s okay.

But with actors this good and this well cast, there can be pleasure even in watching something play out for the second or third time. Catherine Keener has starred in all three of Holofcener’s films. She’s a kind of muse to the director, who writes parts with her in mind, and it’s easy to see why. Here, Keener’s nervous intelligence makes Christine’s clumsy neediness touching rather than gauche. Cusack’s puckish sweetness and McDormand’s ferocious sarcasm are also just right for their characters, while Aniston’s relative blandness and lack of affect fit the self-denying “pothead” Olivia.

The men are also well cast and well written, given their due though they’re at the periphery of the action. Simone McBurney is particularly good as Jane’s ambiguously gay husband, starting out as a punchline but emerging as a likeable, thoughtful, and surprisingly dignified man.

Friends With Money may not be Holofcener’s best work, but it’s an ambling, likeable tale that almost earns its fairy-tale ending. Even if it does nothing else, it’s a rare pleasure to see a movie about female friendship where both the women and the men are believable and there are no heroes or villains.

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