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Wednesday
Apr192006

Friends With Money

[National Review Online, April 19, 2006) 

Here’s a movie plot for you. There are four women, see? And on top of that, three of them are rich. But hold onto your hat, they’re all friends. Whaddaya think?

I don’t get it either. "Friends With Money" shows us four women, and shows that they are friends, and that’s about it. Three of the women are married, and also wealthy, and one is neither. The action (if that’s the right word) appears to take place over the course of several months. Some stuff happens, but less than you’d think. By about the one-hour mark you’re wondering if anything resembling a plot is going to emerge, and the answer is, not really.

My guess is that the goal was to allow some talented women who are nevertheless past high school age to do their stuff. In this, the film succeeds admirably. It could have been Battle of the Divas, but the four actresses (ranging in real life from late 30s to late 40s) turn in performances that are understated and compelling. There’s no chewing of scenery. There’s not much to chew on, period.

Jennifer Aniston is the centerpiece, as Olivia, the friend without money, and also without goals or scruples. She has quit her job as a private school teacher and is now working as a housemaid. She’s not very likeable. In matters of money and love she is depressingly passive, and her personality ranges from blank to furtive. At work she rummages in her employers’ drawers, helps herself to their personal items, and has sex in their beds. Olivia shows a spark only when one of the friends, quite reasonably, declines to loan her money. (Olivia has precipitously decided to train as a fitness coach, and the friend protests, "But you’re the only one of my friends who doesn’t exercise.")

Catherine Keener is lovely as Christine, who writes a TV show with her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), and Joan Cusack is appealing as Franny, an at-home mom married to Matt (Greg Germann). But it’s Frances McDormand who churns up the most interest as Jane, a designer of high-priced clothing. Jane is the kind of person who will make a noisy scene if someone steals her parking place or cuts in line at a store; she blurts out opinions and impolite questions. But something is going wrong inside, and Jane is gradually getting sloppier about her appearance. 

Jane’s husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), is another terrific character. He’s much in love with Jane, but everywhere he goes he’s suspected of being gay, and most of the time he’s clueless about this. "Just because you care about what you wear does not mean you’re gay, right?" he sings out over lunch with a new friend, also named Aaron (Ty Burrell), who has been giving him puppy-dog eyes.

If the title is a clue, then this movie aims to explore the nature of friendships between women, and how those friendships are tested by class and money differences. But in a bid to be subtle, the plot eliminates tension almost entirely. The friends make gossipy comments about each other to their spouses, but there doesn’t seem to be any deep resentment or competitiveness going on. There isn’t a discernible pecking order, which is a feature of most female friendship circles from grammar school on. The friends don’t seem to have formed individual closer friendships within the group — also unlikely. Most women friends talk often about appearance, praising each other’s assets and deploring their own faults. Not here. How did this band become friends, anyway, and how did Olivia - younger, poorer, unmarried, childless - become a member?

Something is wrong when there is more suspense in a movie over whether one character will wash her hair than over another character’s impending marital breakup. Do yourself a favor; if you want a movie that explores women’s friendships and class distinctions with real crackle, rent George Cukor’s "The Women" (1939). This Clare Booth Luce - Anita Loos script gives you double the comedy, double the poignancy, and, as a bonus, plump and clueless Mrs. Potter trilling, "Oh, l’amour, l’amour!" That’s the kind of math any friend with money can appreciate.

 

 

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