(This film review of “Friends With Money” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 31 August 2006.)
Directed and written by Nicole Holofcener
Starring Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand
How many successful Jewish female film directors can you count? After Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”), Amy Heckerling (“Clueless”), Mimi Leder (“Deep Impact”) and Joan Micklin Silver (“Crossing Delancey”), the picking becomes pretty thin. By contrast, I can find at least 150 successful Jewish male film directors, starting with J.J. Abrams and continuing to Terry Zwigoff.
All the more reason that Nicole Holofcener (director of the film “Friends With Money” – opening this week) is important to watch. Her style of gentle self-deprecating humour has been likened to Woody Allen, which is anything but accidental: her stepfather Charles H. Joffe has produced all of Allen’s films, and Nicole has worked on two of them.
Holofcener’s films all appear to be at least in part autobiographical, with her “Lovely & Amazing” charting the foibles of the Marks’, one very Jewish Los Angeles family. Like “Lovely” (2001) and its predecessor “Walking and Talking” (1996), her films are all set in a very contemporary Jewish LA. “Friends With Money” brings her trilogy further, examining the lives and relationships of four fortysomething women: Jane (Frances McDormand) and her husband Aaron (Simon McBurney) are successful clothing designers, except there’s lots of suspicion that Aaron’s fascination with clothing means he is in fact a closet gay, and Jane is slowly self-destructing emotionally. Christine (Catherine Keener) and Patrick (Jason Isaacs) are a screenwriting couple whose relationship slowly deteriorates under the pressure of a new home renovation. Franny (Joan Cusack) and Matt (Greg Germann) are a fabulously wealthy Jewish couple (having just given $2 million to their daughter’s Jewish school) and apparently the happiest of them all.
The fourth friend is Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who has quit her teaching job and is now cleaning houses, and travelling through one unsuccessful relationship after another, definitely the one “without” money, putting lots of stress on her friendships with her wealthier female friends.
Forget saving the earth from tidal waves; “Friends With Money” deftly captures modern life as it is lived by the upper middle class: the self-absorption, the relationship fractures, the dealing with children, the issues of money.
Christine is horrified when she finally realises why her neighbours are angry and that her house extension’s second storey will block their views and sunlight. And we all know something is wrong when she has not noticed for three weeks that her husband has shaved his beard. When she and Patrick argue over their screenplay, the result is so raw that you know this was an argument lived by the writer/director. Jane is struggling with ageing and menopause, and furious when her child’s “play dates” are dropped off by nannies and she has never met the mothers. Franny wonders how she can best help Olivia and if just giving her money outright is the, well, right thing to do.
The acting by the four female leads makes “Friends With Money” just one of the best female ensemble film in many years. The men have less flashy roles, but as Aaron the British actor McBurney gives one of the most nuanced performances of a sensitive and emotional modern man I can remember in recent film. Jennifer Aniston is mostly successful in hiding her star power to play the underpowered and put-upon Olivia. The humour is sly, and the reflections on real life are on target. This comedy-drama is a gem.