Yes, that is Jennifer Aniston tarted up as a sexual fantasy: the ooh-la-la French maid clutching a phallic vacuum hose so her boyfriend can get off when she bends over. No, Friends With Money is not that kind of movie. Far from it. The keenly observant writer and director Nicole Holofcener isn’t about to settle for giving jocks their jollies. She’s interested in the shifting dynamics among real women. Listen up, guys, you might learn something.
In Holofcener’s 1996 debut feature, Walking and Talking, the threat to female closeness is impending marriage. In 2002’s Lovely and Amazing, the issue among sisters is body image. And now, in Friends With Money, the obstacle comes in the form of wealth. Olivia (Aniston), Franny (Joan Cusack), Jane (Frances McDormand) and Christine (Catherine Keener) have been friends since forever. Now Olivia is feeling isolated. It’s not just that she’s single and her three pals are married (that she can deal with) — it’s that she’s cleaning houses for sixty-five dollars a scrub, and her friends are filthy stinking rich.
It turns out money is a hell of a subject for a movie, especially one rendered with decidedly un-Hollywood nuance and intimacy. Smart, witty and alert to the buried resentments that poke through the shiny surface of affluence, Holofcener’s film recognizes that money is the new sex. Buying your kid the right kind of shoes, the expensive kind, is better than an orgasm. The main characters, all living large in Los Angeles, are a bit ashamed of how much they’ve got. Rub it in people’s faces and they’ll think you’re a whore.
Money can’t buy love, but it’s a good down payment on a sense of entitlement. Christine and her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), are a successful screenwriting team at each other’s throats. He says her butt is flabby; she says the extension they’re building on their home — blocking their neighbors’ view — is another example of his egotism.
Jane designs fashions for the . Her husband, Aaron (the superb Simon McBurney), is a caring dad to their son and the target of gossip that he’s gay without knowing it. Played with comic fire and unexpected feeling by McDormand, Jane lets out her anger by going bug-fuck when she thinks someone has cut in line ahead of her at Old Navy. It’s a great scene.
There are many more. The friends are united in horror over Olivia, a former teacher who has reduced herself to cleaning toilets. Franny and her husband, Mac (Greg Germann), the richest of all, don’t hide their disdain. “She’s unmarried, a pothead and a maid,” says Jane, who refuses to give Olivia a loan until she first agrees to get therapy. Money has strings that trump friendship, and Olivia feels the pull. Are her pals merely enjoying creature comforts or are they, well, just creatures?
Holofcener refuses to play the glib game of “rich is evil and poor is noble.” Olivia isn’t helping herself by dating Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer who screws her at the homes she cleans and screws her out of part of her fees. It’s the lack of self-esteem, not cash, that brings Olivia down. But Holofcener admirably avoids judging her characters.
It’s a kick to see Aniston cut loose and break her big-screen losing streak (Rumor Has It, Derailed, Along Came Polly). As Olivia, she gets to show off her gift for giving a character shades of light and dark, recalling how strong she was in The Good Girl and The Object of My Affection. Aniston has a friend indeed in Holofcener, who lets her mix it up with a seasoned ensemble cast. Except for McBurney, the men don’t have much to chew on. But the film is a field day for actresses. And their teamwork is a thing of beauty. When the film premiered at Sundance in January, nit-pickers wanted more narrative drive and clear-cut motivations. Know what? For lots of back story and no loose ends, watch TV. For a movie rich in hilarity, heartbreak and a sense of life in all its vibrant, messy sprawl, watch Friends With Money. It touches a nerve.