There’s a sitcomish quality to Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money.” The keenly observed but slight film doesn’t, however, resemble the sort of sitcom you’d encounter on one of the broadcast networks, but rather the sort found on one of the premium cable networks–HBO, particularly. Like them, the picture gives the impression of digging deeper and more incisively than most. It doesn’t, actually; but the quality of performance and presentation is such that you might be misled into thinking it does. And if the success of shows like “Sex and the City” is any indication, for many that might be enough.
The linchpin of the picture is the friendship that links four Los Angeles women and, by extension, their husbands and boyfriends. Franny (Joan Cusack) is a wealthy, even-tempered if slightly kooky housewife who dotes on her rather bland husband (Greg Germann) and children. Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful but volatile and oddly dissatisfied fashion designer married to a remarkably solicitous husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), whose interest in clothes and rather fey manner suggest to some that he’s gay. Christine (Catherine Keener) is a screenwriter who works with her husband (Jason Isaacs); but though they have a charming young son and have just begun adding a second story to their house in order to provide a view of the sea, there’s a growing sense of unease between them. Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is the odd woman out. She’s not at all well-off, and has chucked her teaching position at a posh school where she felt out-of-place to become a cleaning lady. On the side she collects free samples of the cosmetics she can’t afford, and, it appears, occasionally steals them from her customers, too. She also has an unhappy love life; she’s still pining away for a married man she had a brief affair with, and when Franny fixes her up with her cocky personal trainer (Scott Caan), she allows him to dominate and denigrate her. The other women worry over her (and themselves and one another, too) as their various personal problems–especially Jane’s increasingly erratic behavior and Christine’s recognition that her marriage is falling apart–work themselves out.
Structurally “Friends” is fairly conventional, with episodes concerning the various women shuffled like cards in a deck and periodic occasions–like a dinner or a benefit–that bring them all together. Holofcener’s writing is bright, and the individual sequences are engaging and sometimes touching, but as a whole the film never achieves any significant insight or depth; it’s characteristic that one never really gets any sense of why these four women have remained close (or how they ever got together in the first place), and the conclusion–to Olivia’s story, in particular–comes across as signally pat and cute.
Still, the movie is easy to watch, largely because the cast is so good. Cusack and McBurney are probably the most likable members of the ensemble, but McDormand and Keener both put over their more dramatic characters. The other men–Isaacs, Caan, and Germann–fare less well, mostly because their roles aren’t terribly well written (Holofcener is clearly more at home penning parts for actresses). And then there’s Aniston. She’s much better (read: more subdued) here than she was in the recent Rob Reiner misfire “Rumor Has It…,” but her mannerisms continue to get in the way of her ability to connect.
Technically “Friends With Money” isn’t much more than adequate, and Terry Stacey’s widescreen cinematography is more utilitarian than elegant. But the movie does manage to capture a sense of the upper-middle-class L.A. culture that provides the story’s milieu. Unfortunately, as the short (under 90 minutes) running time suggests, ultimately it’s content merely to slide over the surface, striking glancing blows along the way but in the end offering little that’s revelatory or even insightful. To adopt the lingo of Doug Liman’s “Swingers,” in spite of the title Holofcener’s “Friends” just isn’t money.