“Poor Olivia” (Jennifer Aniston), as her friends call her, is actually poor, at least compared to them. The first time you see her, her face is hidden and her hands and arms provide characterization: she’s a maid, it’s clear, as she’s doing laundry and cleaning the toilet and peeping in drawers, looking impossibly lovely and awfully tanned. Cuts from Olivia to those friends of hers show they are married and well-heeled, worrying about their outfits and caring for their pretty young children. The contrast suggests that Olivia is missing something (like, say, a face, in this opening sequence).
Subsequently, she’s at dinner with her friends at an upscale L.A. restaurant, listening as the couples discuss their lives and their money. Matt (Greg Germann) invites everyone to an ALS fundraiser (“It’ll be fun”), then confesses he and Franny (Joan Cusack) haven’t quite decided where to donate a big chunk of money, based on who needs it most. “Give the money to Olivia,” suggests Jane (Frances McDormand), “She needs money.” When Olivia protests that she is, after all, working, her friends begin to ask questions, happy for a way off that awkward donation moment. “Do you go through people’s stuff, their drawers and shit?” asks Jane, “That would be really fucked up.” Of course not, Olivia lies.
The difference between Olivia and her friends (and her friends and each other) is both significant and irrelevant. They don’t dwell on it, otherwise they wouldn’t be very good friends, or so they think. But though she doesn’t articulate it, Olivia lives with this difference, rebelling against their hopes or expectations in her own tacit way (she collects Lancôme free samples at Bloomingdales, smoke joints alone before bed, calls her ex, a married man, then hangs up when either he or his wife answers). Olivia’s lack of ambition and her vague sadness don’t make her a problem to be fixed, even if her friends think so. She doesn’t have to be like them, or so you hope.
The folks assembled in Nicole Holofcener’s third feature (the other two being Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing http://www.popmatters.com/film/reviews/l/lovely-and-amazing.shtml) understand and sympathize with each another, but their friendships are slightly worn, sometimes strained, sometimes comfortable, and never in doubt. They’re women of a certain age (Olivia a little younger), class, and experience, feeling vaguely or acutely unfulfilled, sharing expectations, complaints, and money, including their husbands and excluding them when appropriate.
Just so, the film uses the men as means to expand on the women, as ways to show their insecurities and generosities. Matt, for instance, is plainly happy with Franny as she is with him. They’re sensible and sweet, they gossip, cuddle and have sex, vaguely argue. (“These shoes cost $95?” asks Franny, observing her child’s teeny feet, poised to outgrow Matt’s latest purchase. But he has a rationale: young feet need protection. And so, it’s okay.) At the same time, Christine (Catherine Keener) and her tv-writing partner/husband David (Jason Isaacs) are just as obviously miserable. They work at facing desks at home, equipped with matching G4s and speaking dialogue at one another, sorting out whether a character “would say that” or not. Increasingly, this process devolves into fights, where the stake has nothing to do with characters, and everything to do with how annoyed they’ve become over details. “I’m bullying you?!” protests David. “We’re having a discussion.” Not from where Christine is sitting.
Perspectives conflict and change, they allow reflection and bring on rage. And yet they’re hardly ever only right, but are instead produced and reflected by experience. If Friends with Money mostly takes the women characters’ perspectives, it’s not to assess men or anyone else, but to examine that very idea, that perspective is limited, and it’s also what you’ve got. The several experiences here fit in something like a narrative structure, but not quite. Scenes cut from one woman to another, their stories expanding and commenting on one another, leaving pieces and sometimes coming together.
Sometimes, these stories intersect outright: Franny fixes up Olivia with her boorish, eternally adolescent personal trainer, Mike (Scott Caan), an obviously terrible idea that suggests Franny’s repressed annoyance at Olivia is emerging, or she honestly misread the self-absorbed Mike (hard to do, as their workout sessions include detailed discussions of where he had sex with his latest conquest). Or Christine insists, repeatedly and usually cattily, that Jane’s husband Aaron (Simon McBurney) is gay. Because she’s Catherine Keener, and because Christine is witty and Aaron does worry out loud about how a shirt hangs on him (and even appears to flirt with men who also think he’s gay), you might not question this assessment.
Then again, you might rethink your assumptions, how you read surfaces and define yourself in relation to others. If you’re poor, for instance, or restless or aging, you might be inclined to measure yourself against friends who don’t appear to be so. But, Friends with Money suggests, your judgments (of self or others) are subjective, based on incomplete information, and usually self-serving, even if well-intentioned.
Then again, such “lessons” are hardly the focus of Friends with Money. True, Christine comes to understand something about herself and David. And Jane comes to preliminary terms, at least, with her increasingly disruptive depression, simmering throughout the film, emerging as occasional barbs (to a woman who’s named her baby “Tal”: “What if he grows up to be short?”; to Aaron, “There’s no more wondering what it’s going to be like, my ‘fabulous life.’” But as Jane finds herself unable to wash her hair (“My arms get tired”) and furious at someone who cuts in line at Old Navy (such indignities matter, she insists), she also seems poised to find herself in the life she’s got. When Jane worries, “I don’t feel like myself,” she poses what would be the movie’s fundamental question, if it had one: what does it mean to have a self to feel like?
As these friends grapple with each other, as well as disappointments, hostilities, and what seem persistent misreadings—of each other, themselves, their male partners—they don’t actually resolve anything. That, of all things, makes Friends with Money seem inspired. You might go so far as to say that the plot contrivance bringing Olivia round to having money (and a boy she likes, to boot) is so unconvincing that it’s a trick, a means to critique typical happy endings. Or you might not.