Friends With Money, the third nominally independent feature written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, is less an ensemble comedy than a relationship film—every major character is defined in terms of his or (mainly) her significant other.
The principals are three and a half West Los Angeles couples—the married fashion designers Jane (Frances McDormand) and Aaron (Simon McBurney), the married screenwriters Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs), the married rich people Franny (Joan Cusack) and Mike (Greg Germann), and the still-to-find- herself-or-husband Olivia (Jennifer Aniston). Olivia is the odd one out. Framed by two group dinners and the inevitable drive-home postmortems, Friends With Money addresses that problem.
Briskly episodic, Holofcener’s mode is predicated, sitcom-style, on riffs, behavioral triggers, and recurring bits of business. As its title jokingly implies, this is a more grown-up version of Aniston’s long- running TV vehicle—complete with the star herself as eternal ingenue. An alternate title, drawing on Holofcener’s own small-screen credits, might have been Sextet in the City: Class consciousness arises in the first scene as the three couples are bewildered to learn that their young friend has given up teaching middle school and become a housemaid.
Friends With Money lacks the strong family dynamics that enlivened Holofcener’s 2002 Lovely & Amazing. Although the women provide the narrative’s social glue, it’s never clear how they formed their bonds. Rather than story, Friends With Money is founded on ready-made behavioral metaphors. The psychopathology of everyday life rules: We understand that Olivia devotes herself to tidying up other people’s messes to avoid organizing her own affairs, that Jane has given up on life because she’s too depressed to wash her hair, and that Christine literally can’t see what’s in front of her and is thus forever bumping into things.
Christine is played by Holofcener’s axiomatic actress and alter ego Keener; as writers, Christine and David have the most developed situation. They work by role-playing, facing each other at individual computers, but they can no longer connect: “It’s like we’re writing two different scripts.” They ponder the vagaries of their profession (“I don’t get SpongeBob,” Christine complains) and embark on meaningless projects. Creating a monument to self-absorption by expanding their house skyward, they wonder why the neighbors are pissed. Franny and Mike talk—or at least communicate— constantly. Consequently, they are the movie’s most sexually compatible couple, as well as the most prosperous; Holofcener’s most audacious plot device is to billboard this pair of well-heeled lovebirds with the message “Money Helps.”
As befits her station (and Cusack’s unaccustomedly serious role), Franny is generous and caring to a fault, taking it on herself to vacuum the pot fumes from Olivia’s empty head. Scarcely a character, Olivia idly phone-stalks her married ex, but she is also something of a saint— remarkably free of class envy and as easily bullied by the men she meets as Aniston is upstaged by the three avidly hard-boiled actresses with whom she shares the screen. A study in wide-eyed stare and adorable nose crinkle, Aniston would be the movie’s prize cutie-pie were it not for McBurney’s flaming metrosexual, constantly being cruised as he innocently shops for clothes. (In the movie’s most extravagant conceit, his narcissism is amply rewarded.)
Transposed to Paris and remade by Agnés Jaoui, Friends With Money might seem more antic and civilized. But it would probably not have been any worldlier. Holofcener’s fairy-tale ending doesn’t dispel the movie’s downbeat insistence on the distribution of luck. Friends With Money hints at an inequality bluntly articulated by novelist Michel Houellebecq: “In a perfectly liberal economic system, some people accumulate considerable fortunes; others molder in unemployment and poverty. In a perfectly liberal sexual system, some people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude.”