Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), Jane (Frances McDormand), Franny (Joan Cusack) and Christine (Catherine Keener) have been friends forever. All are married except for Olivia, who is floundering. She's a dropout, a pot-smoking loser who has given up teaching to clean houses and taken to dialing her married ex-boyfriend's number at night just to hear the annoyance in his voice. All of her friends have money, children and successful careers. But underneath the slick exteriors of their modern L.A. homes lay various forms of discontent.
Friends with Money isn't an easy comedy, but it takes full advantage of the ensemble of talented actors writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing) has assembled. The film is made up of sideways glances and offhand remarks and the characters are perfectly smug smart-asses, each caught in a trap of their own design. They are just as willing to lend support to their friends as they are to turn around and gossip about them behind their backs.
The striking contrast between the haves and the have-nots comes out over dinner one night as Franny and her husband struggle to figure out how to give away their money. When Jane asks how much and discovers it's over two million dollars, she suggests the couple give some of the cash to Olivia, who is cleaning houses for a living. Naturally, the suggestion makes everyone uncomfortable. Frances McDormand's Jane spends the whole film calling people on their petty behavior, wrapping her smirk around the words everyone else is thinking but would never say.
Later in the film, Olivia asks Franny for a small loan. Franny insists that the money she has inherited is not her own to give -- because she's married, but actually she thinks the loan will just be a waste. Anyone who has ever had a difficult conversation about money with a rich friend will recognize the exchange. In response to Olivia's claim that Franny doesn't understand how hard it is to make a living, Franny says, "I feel like I work. I feel like taking care of my kids is work." To which Olivia replies, "But you have full time help!"
Olivia IS the help. She spends her time cleaning up other people's messes. That's the central joke of the film, Olivia is on the inside looking IN. Her friend's philanthropy is a form of non-emotionally intrusive competition with other wealthy people. Franny has to give the money away impersonally, because giving within her own circle would force her to see the reality of her money and therefore examine her own situation. All she really wants to do is feel generous, to feel good about herself.
Nobody in the film wants to recognize the impact their actions have on the rest of the world. The film subtly skews all Americans in this way. We won't see the consequences of our privilege and over-consumption until it smacks us in the face. After Christine and her husband have already added a second story to their small beach house, she realizes the impact the addition has had on her neighborhood. She and her husband pound away at a screenplay together, using the dialogue and motivations of their characters as proxies for their own frustrations with one another. Their entitlement keeps them from recognizing the impact their toxic relationship is having on one another, on their child, and ultimately on their community.
In fact, it is entitlement that separates Olivia from her friends. Having the means to do what you like, to get what you wish, to change whatever makes you unhappy doesn't seem to make any of the characters more satisfied. Jane manufactures an expensive line of clothing and has become fabulously successful, but can't even manage to wash her hair. The thought of it makes her arms tired. At one point she says that she spent her youth trying out new shampoos until she realized they were all made of the same ingredients. Ultimately, now that she is middle aged, there is no more mystery to what her "fabulous life will be like." Wherever she is where she will be and this thought has made her depressed. Olivia, on the other hand, still struggling, still poor, continues to have the potential of becoming. Her failure has left her with no illusions about her place in the world. Jane's success has become a trap.
Friends with Money could easily have been called People with Problems. It is a subtle portrait of a group of friends who are struggling with the reality of their lives. They have a long history with one another and it shows in the subtle ways that they care for and criticize one another. The film is both hilariously cruel and movingly kind to its characters, each person's facade gets pierced at some point and they have to see exactly who they have become. Though they spend the film acerbically attacking the rest of the world, their fiercest jabs are at each other and at themselves.
Friends with Money opens April 7, 2006.