Money Changes Everything 

Ensemble drama sinks its claws into modern life.

The third feature from writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing), the Sundance hit Friends With Money has been partly promoted as a Jennifer Aniston vehicle, but the former Friend is really only one spoke in a strong ensemble cast.

Light on the surface but with a depth that eats at you long after the credits role, Friends With Money is essentially a study of relationships -- romantic and platonic -- centered on three couples and their younger, single friend, played by Aniston.

The three couples -- fashion designer Jane (Frances McDormand) and her metrosexual husband Aaron (Simon McBurney), married screenwriting partners Christine (Catherine Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs), and a couple of leisure Franny (Joan Cusack) and Mike (Greg Germann) -- are all wealthy, but none more so than Franny and Mike, the source of whose wealth is never revealed but who have enough spare cash lying around to donate $2 million to their daughters' school.

Less fortunate is their younger, tragically husbandless friend Olivia (Aniston), a former schoolteacher who quit her job and is now working as a maid, a career route that pulls her ever further outside her friends' social orbit.

Friends With Money is modest on the surface, but its very deliberate structure -- bookended by group dinners (the first setting up the last) and their respective, inevitable drive-home post-mortems -- conveys the degree of directorial intent behind even the most minor moments. As does the film's high-concept title: Friends With Money might move with an understated, lifelike rhythm, but everything serves the purpose of reminding us that while money might seem to be a background element, it informs all our lives and relationships.

In Holofcener's universe -- as in our own -- wealth can be as much about luck or circumstances of birth as about hard work or life decisions, and if it can't buy love it can certainly make life easier, greasing the wheels of happiness.

The happiest couple in this movie is Franny and Mike, whose only argument is over whether it's right to pay $90 for their kids' shoes. They have the best sex, the most rift-free conversations, and the fewest worries. By contrast, Mike and Christine are building a monument to ego, in the form of a vertical addition to their home, as a way of distracting themselves from their sexless, disintegrating marriage. Jane is having a midlife breakdown while her husband goes sweater shopping with male admirers. Olivia, meanwhile, is in the middle of a fruitless relationship with Franny's personal trainer. When the trainer (Scott Caan) asks what Olivia does for a living, Franny avoids the question. But when he asks about her tits, Franny happily responds, "Oh, they up!" Better to date a jerk than no one at all.

In between the bookend dinners, Friends With Money plays out as a series of episodic interactions with various subsets of the seven friends, who, of course, talk about whoever isn't there. In picking at the social framework and barely submerged neuroses of educated, upper-middle-class white characters, Friends With Money is much like an '80s Woody Allen movie with fewer jokes but more self-awareness and class-consciousness.

It's an entertaining film with a hopeful sheen, at least as regards Olivia's fate, but prick the surface and Holofcener's depiction of this world is as merciless as it is understanding.

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