A New Friend
Jennifer Aniston plays a poor housemaid with rich friends in director Nicole Holofcener’s
Thursday, April 20, 2006
Four close friends form the cornerstone of the brilliantly observed Friends With Money, three who have it, one who doesn’t. Even by LA’s pricey Westside standards, the characters played by Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, and Catherine Keener (and husbands) stand out; in contrast, Jennifer Aniston isn’t just broke, “she’s unmarried, she’s a pothead, and she’s a maid.” True enough—and that’s from a friend.
Actually Aniston’s character is in full flight, and if she wants to clean the hair out of people’s showers, who can blame her? She’s just quit teaching at a private Santa Monica grade school after the kids pitched quarters at her ancient Honda—with her in it. Still, abuse from 8-year-olds is nothing compared to what she puts up with from men, from the mildly gormless loser (beefy Bob Stephenson) who tries to chisel down her housecleaning rate to Cusack’s personal trainer (Scott Caan), one jaw-dropping package of entitlement.
On the black side of the ledger, money turns out to be a lousy insulator against pain. Successful dress designer McDormand is in a full-scale midlife crisis, despite a loving, encouraging husband (Simon McBurney), who wouldn’t mind if they had a second child. Raging (hilariously, laceratingly) in public, privately she’s so shut down she won’t even wash her hair—or consider the fact that her husband seems to be catnip to every gay man in sight. (Bad enough that she has to monitor her son’s play dates.)
Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs are screenwriters adding an ocean-view upstairs family room—an expensive way of avoiding the fact that, by the time it’s built, their marriage may have run its course. Their sniping puts an increasing edge on every dinner the gang has together and turns their annual Christmas Tree Fight into a real donnybrook.
On the calmer, ever duller side is the really rich Joan Cusack and Greg Germann, whose sex life thrives and whose worst fights are over smoking (she still lets him) and whether their 3-year-old really needs $85 shoes (he’s for it.) He’s the sort of guy who can ask Aniston at dinner if she goes through her clients’ drawers. (Well, yes, she does, but who asks?)
As Money crackles into life, all I could think was how this ensemble of actresses must have felt driving to work every morning—like jaguars, getting tossed red meat. Keener’s accustomed to these riches. She’s been Holofcener’s painfully insecure alter ego from Walking and Talking (1996) to Lovely and Amazing (2001). Happy to report she’s glorious as ever, a shade less needy, but still likely to crack her shin on any solid object. Aniston, new to such gold-standard company, is the real surprise, doing far more than just keeping up. McDormand’s firestorm of a performance is the movie’s most over-the-line, did- she-really-say-that experience. Her pan-successful life is supposed to have left her in an existential, “Is that all there is” place of soul-searching.
Money may be only writer-director Holofcener’s third feature, but she’s clearly the master of her turf: women’s lives, as they’re really and truly lived. (Men are allowed, but not essential; in Money, with the exceptions of McBurney, who’s a real find, and Caan, who makes an unparalleled creep, they’re more ephemeral than usual.) Sad to say it, but at the movies these days, Holofcener has this ground virtually to herself. In literature, you could compare the movie to Cyra McFadden’s satiric novel The Serial, which dissected the rich and excruciatingly self-realized of Marin County. I’d go even further: As she keeps her focus close and her wit about her, Holofcener is creating a body of work that parallels Jane Austen’s immaculate chronicles of morals and manners.
Admittedly, Austen had basically one serviceable,
adjustable story on which she sketched the slights and
inequities suffered by her genteel poor relations, who
inevitably triumphed with a glittering marriage. Story has
always been a sometime thing with Holofcener, and Money
is even more of a loose-knit accumulation of events than
usual: one $1,000-a-plate benefit after another, with caustic
replays in the car on the way home, yet the pointillism
finally pays off, well, richly.
FRIENDS WITH MONEY (* * * )Directed by Nicole Holofcener. • Starring Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack. • (R, 88 min.) • At the Century Cinemas Del Monte Center, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas.