I enjoyed Friends with Money well enough while I was watching it. I didn’t think it was great, especially clever or profound. But it was entertaining in its slight way, and for a change I didn’t spend the bulk of a movie with Jennifer Aniston wondering what the fuss is over her — perhaps because she plays a character over whom no one would make a fuss. The problem with Friends with Money is that its slightness seems slighter and slighter the further you get from the film.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener had an art-house hit in 2001 with Lovely and Amazing, a far superior film, which she seems here a little too determined to recreate. That film also focused on four women — three women and a little girl, actually — but there the connections between the characters were less forced, since they consisted of three daughters and a mother.
Here we have to accept that four unrelated characters are lifelong friends (or something close to that), despite having little in common and the fact that Olivia (Aniston) is about 10 years younger than the rest. In Lovely and Amazing it wasn’t necessary to explore how the characters met. Here, it would have helped. Apart from a passing reference to the question of whether Olivia’s friends with money would have considered having Olivia as a friend if they had been affluent when they met her, the origins of the four’s friendship aren’t really addressed. Instead, Holofcener just drops us into their world — and it never feels quite real. It feels unfinished — like an intriguing episode of sitcom that’s the set-up for a series that will explore these characters more fully.
Olivia’s deliberate “loser” character is the best-formed of the film’s creations. As a teacher at a posh school, she grows tired of having her relative poverty being pointed out by the rich students, and quits to hire herself out as a maid and smoke a lot of pot. With this in mind, one wonders why she clings to a set of upscale friends whose lives constantly point out her lowly status in life. Perhaps she sticks with them because at least two of them — Christine (Catherine Keener) and Jane (Frances McDormand) — are like poster children for the “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness” campaign. The remaining friend, Franny (Joan Cusack), is relatively happy, so it’s no surprise that she and her husband (Greg Germann, Down and Derby) keep threatening to drift into the scenery and disappear.
The truth, though, is probably that Olivia suffers from a kind of spiritual inertia that causes her to take what she’s handed without too many questions, as evidenced from her demeaning affair (if it can be dignified with that term) with a physical trainer (Scott Caan) who brazenly cheats on her, uses her and turns her into a joke-shop sex toy.
The film intends to explore its characters, but it never seems to quite get anywhere with its explorations, and more often than not the characters seem to have troubles just keeping the film going. Few aspects of the film have any resolution — from the question of Jane’s husband’s (Simon McBurney, The Manchurian Candidate) sexuality to the problem of Christine’s guilt over a monstrous addition to her house that blocks everyone else’s view — and this, I suspect, is meant to be realistic. And it may be, but it isn’t very satisfying — nor is the conclusion where Olivia finds her true self and is rewarded in a way I won’t reveal here.
There’s a good bit of wit to the film, some solid performances and a great deal of clever writing, but nothing substantial. It’s an entertaining 88 minutes, but not much more. Rated R for language, some sexual content and brief drug use.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke