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This text has been submitted as an original contribution to cinetext on June 6, 2006.

I Like You but...

Friends with Money

Friends whith Money (Sony Classics 2006)

by Daniel Garrett

Friends with Money, directed by Nicole Holofcener, is a film that presents a situation that is probably easy for many people to relate to: other people of your acquaintance have more money, more happiness, or more something than you do. How do you feel about that? How do they feel about you? What are the consequences for your relationships, and do those consequences signify anything more?

Nicole Holofcener, whose previous films include Walking and Talking (1996), about two friends, one of whom is getting married while the other has dating trouble, with the friends played by Anne Heche and Catherine Keener, and Lovely and Amazing (2001), about a family of smart but vain and insecure women, also featuring Catherine Keener, as well as Brenda Blethyn and Emily Mortimer, now has made a film, in Friends with Money, about women and money, work, friendship, and love. The film offers observations, a few significant thoughts, and a few situations of compelling drama and emotion, but, while incisive, it does not cut as deep as it could.

The mostly well-off California friends in the new film are Jane (Frances McDormand), Christine (Catherine Keener), Franny (Joan Cusack), and Olivia (Jennifer Aniston). The women have been friends for a long time, so while they may feel some disapproval and discomfort regarding their suddenly poor friend Olivia—she quit her teaching job in a fancy school, and has become a maid; and she also had an affair with a married man that she hasn’t gotten over, and she smokes marijuana—the fact that they have known her during better days balances their opinion. They know that what she seems now is not all she was or is. She, also, just happens to be an attractive and well-spoken young blonde and blue-eyed woman who, in the society she lives in, will not be read, at least not quickly, as a loser. This is a low-wire act with a very strong net below. Most of the challenges have to do with Olivia’s self-esteem and mood (she is inclined to give disappointing men a second date when she should not give them a second look); and some challenges have to do with whether her wants can be confined to her budget: she likes expensive skin care products, and collects free samples (but these products are luxuries, not necessities; and I do not think that we ever see her worry about necessities). While the film presents one trial of friendship, the request for a financial loan, that is weakened by the fact that Olivia wants it from Franny (Cusack) to pay for a course in becoming a personal physical trainer, a whim, not a serious want or need.

In Lovely and Amazing, the director Holofcener introduced into the scenario an adopted African-American daughter, one way, possibly a very blatant way, of invoking complexity and diversity. What would it have meant for Olivia to be African-American, or for her friends to include at least one African-American? What would the expectations be for Olivia if she had been African-American? Would her downward spiral be seen as a return from whence she came (no matter where she came from: she would be retiring to mythic origins of degradation and despair)? If there had been a wealthy African-American friend of Olivia, would she feel sympathy or contempt for Olivia? Would she wonder how someone with so much going for her—that blonde hair, those blue eyes, and that teaching certificate—let it all go to waste? Jennifer Aniston’s Olivia is saddened but not maddened by her state; and her friends are more tolerant than not.

Olivia’s fashion designer friend Jane (McDormand) is very angry, but she’s angered by the petty discourtesies of strangers—the way they ignore her presence, or take advantage of her kindness—and we learn that what is beneath that annoyance is fear and rage at aging, at the possibilities that diminish with time. Jane’s husband is sensitive Aaron (Simon McBurney), and others take issue with his sensitivity, but it is obvious he loves Jane. (People say they want sensitive men but when they see one, they aren’t sure how to react: how many times have I thought that? It would be nice for male sensitivity not to be an issue. Aaron is not only sensitive, he is undefended in his manner: what many of us confuse for strength in men is often armor protecting nothing but a dried-up heart.) Aaron even suggests he and Franny have another child. Jane and Olivia’s somewhat self-absorbed friend Christine (Keener) is unhappy about her work and personal relationships with her husband (Jason Isaacs, as the dried-up heart). Christine and her husband are collaborating writers and he ignores her creative suggestions during work, and he also ignores her at other times. Franny (Cusack) and her husband Matt (Greg Germann) are rich, loving, happy.

The performances are good, especially that of McDormand, McBurney, and Keener. McDormand (Fargo, Wonder Boys) has a scene in which she is casually obnoxious about the name of someone else’s newborn baby, and another when she becomes insane (and insanely funny) when people cut in front of her in a cashier’s line in a clothing store. McBurney’s sweet openness is a pleasant change from what many men are onscreen, and he is a comforting and comic presence. Keener, whether confused by her writing partner’s response, quietly (but nastily) doubting Aaron’s sexual preference, hurt when she sees how bad her marriage has become, or relieved by a housekeeper’s concern, is believable. I liked Aniston, but her performance seems more restrained than the others—not wrong, but delicate where it might have been deep. (It could be a result of being trained through television work, except that Aniston has been more effective in other films, such as The Object of My Affection and The Good Girl). Cusack, Germann, Scott Caan, and Ty Burrell are part of a consistently strong cast.

What I began to wonder, though, was whether Nicole Holofcener had taken a complex experience—of aging, marital distress, creative frustration, and marginal employment; and the confusion, fury, and pain of those difficulties—that one person might have and displaced it onto several different characters. I’m not suggesting that I think that this is or was Holofcener’s personal experience, only that she perceived something—what it’s like to be outside the normal functioning of society (especially in a place and time when most people are struggling to be or seem conformist embodiments of the society’s values: beautiful, successful, happy)—and instead of giving us the fullest and possibly most astringent picture, Holofcener gave us one we could more easily take. Imagination and art are inspired by perceptions of and ideas about the world. Many individuals have more than one kind of problem: and Olivia seems to have more than one, but actually all are of her own making (she was not fired—she quit her teaching job; she chose to have an affair with a married man and then become involved with men with problems; she chooses to smoke marijuana, which is not shown as a particularly compulsive habit; and we do not see her looking for jobs other than that of maid). Some people have problems that do not originate in their own heads, but in the world: they are fired because of a company’s failure to make its planned revenue, because of new technology making their work obsolete, because of an argument with an unfair supervisor, or because of social prejudice. Some people “without money” are depressed and angry, and starve a couple of days a week, and cannot pay for medical care, and sell off small bits of their property (jewelry, stereo) for cash. Some of them don’t wash (like Jane, who has money), some of them neglect their relationships (like Christine, who has money), and some of them are oblivious to the complexities of others (like Franny, who has money): and, while it is true that financially secure people can and do suffer, it is the kind of flaws or problems that the moneyed people have in the film that made me wonder if some of Olivia’s problems—if some of the ordinary problems of someone without money, and the effects of those problems—were displaced onto the other characters. I think that often filmmakers design stories so that each character has a particular gift or weakness; and in this there may be an attempt to make each character interesting (or to provide “balance” in the story) but it may, in effect, make each character simple or weaken the exploration of theme. The picture would have been stronger had Olivia been more different from her friends: if we had seen how the change in her financial state changed her, and how that change in her changed her relationships. Obviously, most of this is speculation, in my attempt to account for why a film about a serious matter should not be more provocative, more moving. Nicole Holofcener has made a film about comfortable people that does not make one uncomfortable: and when have class differences not brought some discomfort?

“Everyone, regardless of background, has such powerful feelings about money and how it should be spent. I wanted to find a way to have that phenomenon placed against the backdrop of longtime friendships. When people have been friends for ages, they go through different stages of life together. And when you’re in your mid-forties, you’re supposed to be where you want to be, have the career you’ve worked for, the children you’ve wanted, and the money you’ve earned. But what if not everyone reaches these goals at the same time?” said Nicole Holofcener, in a commentary provided by Sony Pictures Classics that appeared on the web pages of Spirituality and Practice (available as of April 14, 2006). Holofcener has claimed Woody Allen, Jane Campion, Federico Fellini, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Soderberg as influences, but these filmmakers have been more complex and scathing in their vision of self and society.

Without being specific, Holofcener, as part of the same Spirituality and Practice commentary, said “The characters are very real to me—some of them based somewhat—on very real people I know.” In an interview with online magazine Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, she admitted that “I think that some of my own self-loathing is definitely in there. You know, when I recognize things about myself that I don’t like, and that I’m ashamed of. Like my materialism, or the fact that I’m not saving children in Ethiopia. That I care about pretty things” (April 6, 2006). How many people are saving children in Ethiopia? That is rather general self-criticism. What’s notable also, is that the indulgences we see in the film are fairly acceptable—Franny and her husband, the wealthiest couple, buy their daughter expensive shoes (that can be excused as love); and Franny and her husband buy a table at a benefit that costs thousands of dollars (that can be excused as generosity). The film offers the most benevolent view of class differences I have ever seen.

One has to contend with the work one sees in front of one’s eyes, not the work one would have preferred. Friends with Money is as colorful, conversational, friendly, funny, sharp, and sniping as the group of assembled friends featured: its mood is relaxed, though there is something on its mind and anxieties touching the edges of its nerves. The film is good at showing how people get stuck in ruts, though I found myself wondering what Olivia does for self-affirmation, for meaning. Does she ever look at her life and feel as if it doesn’t correspond to who she is, or how she feels, as if she has stumbled into a nightmare? Does she ever feel arrogant about facing some of what other people fear? Near the end of the film, after the expensive benefit for which Franny and her husband have bought a table, which they shared with their friends, two of the women, when alone with their spouses, are each told by her husband that she was the prettiest woman there. Is that a genuine perception, or the blindness of love? Does having the comment occur twice lend the relationships a false—or a true—affirmation (or is truth and falsity irrelevant in a film with an invented story)? Whatever, these are small questions in a small film that touches on a large subject: money.

Money influences what one does and does not do. Friends with Money does not grapple with how money can come between people in fatal and final ways, nor with how it is generated in the larger world—with the ownership of production and most businesses by a few persons, with capitalism and the wage slavery of most people, with the banking system, and the government. That is another story, another film, and the province of economics and politics: the real world.

Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

$ $ $Date: 2006/05/30 20:03:17 $