Thursday, August 9, 2012

Watching Miserable People Who Are Friends With Money

The Good: Decent acting, Realistic character development
The Bad: Lack of plot, Mood
The Basics: In exploring the underclass, writer/director Nicole Holofcener creates a depressing film that is worth a viewing, but difficult to watch a second time.

I'm always complaining around here about movies with people who claim to be ordinary and yet they never seem to have any problems with money. You know, how everyone in the movies and television seem to have great jobs or no problems making ends meet or how they all just look Hollywood beautiful. So, it seemed like a natural fit that I would welcome a movie like Friends With Money, which is pretty much like it sounds; one poor person surrounded by people who have money.

You ask a question, you get an answer. The reason there aren't a ton of movies about people who don't have a lot of money is portrayed in Friends With Money in the simplest possible terms; poor people are miserable. But that's all right, in writer/director Nicole Holofcener's worldview; rich people are miserable, too. Almost everyone in Friends With Money is suffering in one way or another, though admittedly the pair who seems to suffer the least are the richest of the group.

Olivia is a former teacher who now works as a maid cleaning other people's houses. Her best friends in the world are a writer (Christine), a fashion designer (Jane) and Franny, wife of a businessman who is apparently quite successful. Jane is married to Aaron, who is also successful though everyone pretty much assumes he is gay and that is the cause of Jane's misery. Christine's misery is obvious; she is married to a jerk. And Franny, well, she's pretty happy. She also has a lot of money and she and her husband Matt seem to get along throughout the entire movie. Olivia is poor and discontent and while the others explore the discontent of having a lot of money, Olivia struggles to find meaning in the group while trying to find a relationship.

One of the things I liked quite a bit about Friends With Money is that Olivia will do pretty much anything for money. That's not a compliment, but it makes the movie very real. Olivia is so miserable and desperate for money that she degrades herself constantly and that seemed exceptionally realistic to me. So when one of her clients haggles her down from $65 for her services to $50, she agrees, because something is better than nothing in her worldview. Sadly, this is taken to the extreme, so as she explores a relationship with Mike, he takes advantage of her kindness, what little money she has and basically uses her sexually before she gets up enough dignity to actually leave him.

It's a sad commentary, but it reads as very real and ultimately, it is that quality to the movie that makes me recommend it.

The characters are otherwise varied in their likability. Franny is fairly blase outside her philanthropy (the movie is basically building up to a $1,000 a plate fundraiser for ALS that she purchased a table at) and she seems somewhat more a "type" than the others. Christine's relationship with her husband David is perhaps the most troubling; he seems painted almost unrelentingly as a jerk, which begs the question, how did this get by her for years?! They professionally collaborate, but it seems like even that does not go well for them for even a moment. Yet, David seems quite set in his ways, as if he has always acted the way he does. Christine is either oblivious or stupid in this instance and it's difficult, given the way she is portrayed, that she truly is either.

Jane, I understood. Jane is suffering an ennui (which I do not share) that seems to come from being wealthy and having the time and ability to reflect on the morality of the situations her life throws at her. As a result, she becomes deeply depressed over people cutting her off in parking lots and lines and she stops washing her hair because she knows she'll just have to do it again tomorrow. Her clothes are ridiculously overpriced and she knows it and she seems to see it as her duty to sheer the even wealthier of that little sliver of money. Aaron, her husband, is likable and seems to genuinely care for her and the movie plays with the whole "is he or isn't he" idea quite effectively only because so many of the characters make an issue out of it. His ability to reach out to Jane enriches both of them and the film.

Part of the strength of Friends With Money is definitely in the casting and acting. Greg Germann stretches out into a dramatic role unlike anything I've seen him play as Matt (Franny's husband). Bob Stephenson plays Marty with instant likability that gives him a presence on screen one would think would disappear next to the limelight of Jennifer Aniston, but he holds his own. And Scott Caan, whose character is possibly the most unlikable in the movie (though Jason Isaacs as David comes close) does an excellent job making the viewer hate him.

The two shining stars are Frances McDormand as Jane and Jennifer Aniston as Olivia (how Catherine Keener ended up at the top of the credits for her role of Christine, I have yet to figure out). McDormand gives a great performance, living beyond what I had heard of her performances in Fargo and Almost Famous (in both of those movies, she was touted by the press as a great actress, HERE I see it completely!). She portrays depression in a way that is almost physically painful to watch, encouraging the viewer to feel a gut reaction of empathy. Her ability to connote a great deal with facial expression, as well as barbing some of the movie's most simple lines with implication, is brilliant.

And then there's Jennifer Aniston. It's difficult to watch someone who is a-list portray someone who is constantly degrading herself and Aniston (and this is intended as a compliment) does it wonderfully in Friends With Money. There is not a moment of the movie where Aniston is JENNIFER ANISTON, A-Lister! She's Olivia from her first frame to the last, awkward, pained, insecure. This is a performance that stretches her ability as an actress and she lives up to the challenge completely. And no one is more surprised about that than I.

Ultimately, though, Friends With Money is a depressing movie. It's thought provoking. It illustrates what capitalism can do to people who want basic respect and dignity and find users and jerks. Olivia's reasoning for leaving teaching is brilliant and one of the film's strengths is definitely that we never see flashbacks to that time in her life.

Poor people want the same things wealthy people have: to be comfortable and to try to find happiness. All Friends With Money reveals is that people with money can find more expensive ways to make themselves miserable or they can choose to overcome their misery and be happy in a way the poor among us cannot.

For other works with Frances McDormand, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Transformers: Dark Of The Moon
Aeon Flux
City By The Sea
Almost Famous
Wonder Boys
Miller’s Crossing


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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