Monday, May 08, 2006

Film Review #43 – “On FRIENDS WITH MONEY” *** Writer/director Nicole Holofcener *** Cast: Jennifer Anniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand *** B+ *** There is a scene midway through Nicole Holofcener’s FRIENDS WITH MONEY where the wildly affluent and moderately ditzy Franny (Joan Cusack) discusses her long-time younger friend Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) with her husband as they undress for bed after a dinner out with friends. Franny and her husband are planning a gift of $2 million to their toddler’s daycare center, while Olivia, having quit her job as a high school teacher, has started cleaning houses. Franny’s helped Olivia out financially before – she’ll resist lending her money again, but she will fix her up romantically with a personal trainer who turns out to be a jerk. Olivia does just fine in both the money and man departments by closing fade-out, and turns out to be a fine friend in some old-fashioned ways that matter. But first, Franny’s husband wonders aloud if the two women would be friends at all if they met now. Thinking a moment, Franny decides, “Probably not.” *** Ostensibly FRIENDS WITH MONEY is about the anxieties that money can produce among intimate friends in a highly mobile society. Holofcener recently told the Washington Post that creeping income disparities in her own circle of friends and family had eventually caused such mischief that she found herself “ashamed when I cared, ashamed when I was materialistic, jealous when I didn’t have it, guilty when I did.” *** Her film presents a quartet of West Coast women played by Anniston and Cusack, along with Catherine Keener (a screenwriter whose marriage to her work partner falls apart) and Frances McDormand (a fashion designer with an enormously gentle, appealing husband whom nearly every other character insists must be gay – adding an astute, efficient subtext to the film about the maddening, contradictory burdens even progressive women put on men). *** Each of Holofcener’s feature films has used some issue of current, representative social mores as a frame on which to hang a story about relationships among women. In 2002 her LOVELY AND AMAZING focused on the toll of women’s pervasive discomfort with their bodies (or some might say, on contemporary narcissism). Her first film, WALKING AND TALKING(1996), tackled the strain that occurs for life-long best friends when one gets happily engaged and the other’s problems with men persist. Between films, she’s worked as a television writer and director on what could be called similar fictional commentaries on contemporary life: HBO’s SEX AND THE CITY and SIX FEET UNDER, and WB’s GILMORE GIRLS. *** But Holofcener’s films really wear their social issues like a loose garment. For good or ill, she is primarily a story-teller of personal lives. *** The strength of Holofcener’s story-telling resides in choreographing the critical junctures in her often quirky characters’ relationships. FRIENDS WITH MONEY manages to juggle four women’s relationship issues with their partners and each other through a series of vignettes about their non-earth-shattering but personally significant crises. *** Olivia’s apparent crisis is just the dramatic device to get things rolling. Like the sleep-walking woman on the edge of the cliff in an old melodrama, somehow she fails to grasp the danger of her stint as a maid that her friends – and even Franny’s Mexican maid – see it for. Not that Olivia’s a fool. Her reassuring answer to the client who’s embarrassed his house is so messy – “That’s what I’m here for” – suggests that she probably was patient with those high school students. Olivia often takes the time to think before she answers, a sign of more self-possession than her friends give her credit for. And in a film whose aesthetic depends so heavily on the human face, you know something is really wrong when she comments about the jerky boyfriend that the “sex is fun but he doesn’t look at me.” Holofcener’s filmmaking proceeds by small, carefully crafted and very often rich, purely visual moments. This signifies both her considerable craft and her major challenge. *** Catherine Keener’s been in all three Holofcener features and it’s a pleasure to re-watch the films just to see her decade’s growth as an actor. Holofcener’s casts indicate that from the start, actors who have turned out to be very good have loved working with her. Why would this be so? FRIENDS WITH MONEY offers us spectacularly good acting among all its principals that is quintessentially screen acting. In that way it reminds me a bit of Rodrigo Garcia’s work. His NINE LIVES (2005), along with his previous two films (TEN TINY LOVE STORIES in 2001 and THINGS YOU CAN TELL JUST BY LOOKING AT HER in 2000) and his directing work – actually much like Holofcener’s – on several HBO series, work more radically by stringing together anthologies of discrete, short episodes. Like him, Holofcener has a dazzling ability to create finely wrought, up-close scenes – sometimes scenes that go a great distance forward on physical acting, though she’s no slouch with dialogue. Screen actors love this chance to do close work with director and camera; when it clicks it can sometimes approach the rare cinematic equivalent of what stage actors describe as that electric exchange with a live audience. *** Such close work can be risky. Viewers and critics alike often prefer it in small doses. For example, director Amos Gitae did work like this in his new FREE ZONE's opening scene, with that ten minute close-up of Natalie Portman weeping silently against the soundtrack’s Israeli song. But whole films built on such close work require an unaccustomed attention that can be exhausting and translate to complaints of boredom, demands for editing and wishes for “larger” aims – that is, more action, more dialogue, greater consequences, and different cinematography. Indeed, if critics have complained about Holofcener’s work – even while appreciating her extraordinary skill with actors – it’s been to wish she were more “adventurous,” less “modest.” *** Here in upstate New York, FRIENDS WITH MONEY straddles a line, screening simultaneously at both the mall multiplex and at a locally-owned small art cinema just off-campus. I’m reminded of a birthday card I saw recently: on the cover there’s a girl with candles on her cake, inside the message, “Dream bigger.” Tighter, deeper, both more focused and generous than her first two films, FRIENDS WITH MONEY is the film I think we’ll look back on as that moment when Holofcener did just that. *** This review was written for, where it appeared 5/11/06.