Maid in the Shade

Friends with Money

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, May 8, 2006


"Friends with Money" is an astutely observed ensemble film about four West Los Angeles women, one single and struggling (Jennifer Aniston) and three married with children and prospering (the terrific trio of fortyish actresses Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand). The "Sideways" of chick-flicks, this low key comedy balances on a knife-edge between excellence and inconsequentiality, drawing wildly varying reactions depending on the audience's mood. My wife liked it so much she saw it twice. While Saturday's crowd roared with laughter, Sunday's gaped impassively.

In Aniston's sit-com "Friends," the question, "How they can afford that Manhattan apartment?" was seldom even raised, much less answered, but the low budget "Friends with Money" is more realistic about how wealth matters.

In real life, Aniston, the former Mrs. Brad Pitt, has, I should hope, all the money she'll ever need. So, to establish herself as a serious film actress, she worked cheap in this indie film's deglamorized lead role as a depressed former schoolteacher reduced to toiling as the last Anglo maid in LA. Her character desperately needs both money and a man. A rich boyfriend would be ideal, but she's too glum to put up with an aggressive go-getter.

Aniston is now 37. An actress' career typically peaks between 35 and 40, but that's also when her biological clock is ticking loudest. Her vastly publicized divorce from Pitt last year apparently involved, among other causes, his desiring children and her wanting to act. (So, Angelina Jolie will soon bear Pitt's first-born.)

Despite her fame, Aniston is not quite a classic beauty -- her jaw is too strong, lips too thin, nose too big, and face too narrow -- but on "Friends" her vivacity and famous hairstyles covered up these imperfections. Here, though, she bravely lets writer-director Nicole Holofcener blunt her looks and energy for the good of the story.

Meanwhile, the three supporting actresses in "Friends with Money" have reached the age where even a modest paycheck for playing roles this insightful is welcome. This is not to say that they, or any aging performers, are hurting for money. I hope you don't share this concern of mine, but I can't help but worry that any celebrity I like would ever fall so humiliatingly low as to require non-celebrity employment. Fortunately, the long housing boom in fashionable cities means that most veteran film actors are now so rich in real estate that, no matter how wrinkly they become, they'll never endure the ultimate indignity of having, like you or me, to get a real job.

Joan Cusack, the delightful comic actress of "Adams Family Values," portrays a benevolent rich woman who buys a $10,000 table for her friends to share at a fund-raising banquet for Lou Gehrig's Disease. Aniston's character, whose date is a client who chiseled her housecleaning fee down from $65 to $50 per week, isn't terribly comfortable at the kind of Beverly Hills charity auction where you can bid on having Reese Witherspoon knit you a sweater.

Last year at age 45, Catherine Keener's career finally caught fire, as she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "Capote." Here she plays a movie screenwriter who teams with her husband to write romantic comedies, but whose own marriage is turning into a grim farce.

In the old days, husband-wife writing teams, such as Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich ("It's a Wonderful Life") were common, but now that teenage boys are the target audience, more prevalent are brother acts like the Wachowskis ("V for Vendetta"), the Farrellys ("There's Something About Mary,"), the Wayans ("Scary Movie"), and the Coens ("Fargo"). (The only notable sister act is the Ephrons of "You Got Mail.")

Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand, whose wonderful turn as the pregnant sheriff in "Fargo" won her an Oscar, plays a menopausal fashion designer. She's angry because she's not getting any younger and because her friends think her metrosexual husband, a sweet-natured Roddy McDowall-type, is gay when he's really just English.

The five depressed characters in "Friends with Money" can be a downer, but as psychiatrist Peter Kramer noted in Listening to Prozac, high and popular culture over the last century teemed with depressives, in part because they are often mordantly funny. Yet, the film's sadness makes the clever happy ending, a plot twist of which Jane Austen would have approved, that much more surprising and sweet.

Rated R for language, some sexual content, and brief drug use.


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