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MOVIE REVIEW

A Westside story

Some L.A. types might see themselves in the biting, perceptive `Friends With Money.'

April 07, 2006|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

CONSIDER this a warning. If you make your home in one of the affluent parts of Los Angeles, especially on the Westside, Nicole Holofcener knows where you live. She might even be under the bed, taking notes. She knows all of our secrets and our lies, how we fight and fool ourselves and each other, how we hurt and how we love. She knows it all, and she's put it into one piercingly observed, achingly perceptive film, "Friends With Money."

"Friends" is the writer-director's third feature, following "Walking and Talking" and "Lovely and Amazing," projects much admired for their individuality, insight and ability to eavesdrop on contemporary reality. But this piece takes Holofcener's gifts to a new level, deepening her sensibility, broadening her appeal and in all ways fulfilling the promise of what came before.

With a quartet of splendid actresses -- Catherine Keener, Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack -- playing friends who have all kinds of issues with the love and money that is and isn't in their lives, the result is an exquisitely calibrated hypermodern comedy of manners. A quiet but devastating ensemble piece, both acerbic and sweet, "Friends" blends empathy and a great sense of comic timing with the richness of Holofcener's trademark take-no-prisoners observations.

In fact, the writer-director holds such a keen mirror to modern times, has such a perfect ear for who we are and how we live in this particular corner of the world -- brie on wheat bread, anyone? -- that she brings another writer to mind. A woman who advised a young writer that "three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on" and who famously never expanded her horizons beyond "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush." A woman named Jane Austen.

Calling Holofcener the Jane Austen of West L.A. not only is not a stretch, it points up one of the exceptional qualities of her work. The very specificity of the film's participants -- people who shop at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, go to movies on the Third Street Promenade and eat in Chaya Venice -- gives them the heft of reality and truth that is essential for creating universality. As Holofcener says in the press notes, "the issues that the characters themselves have could be anywhere. Self-loathing, narcissism and pain is not limited to Los Angeles."

One of "Friends With Money's" small jokes with itself is that the actress who plays Olivia, the friend with the least money, least promising romantic life and least fulfilling job is Aniston, America's tabloid sweetheart and glamorous Vanity Fair cover girl.

Olivia used to teach at an unnamed wealthy Santa Monica private school, but when the kids started tossing quarters at her because she drove an old car, she quit and is currently employed cleaning houses.

Still hung up on an old boyfriend who has moved on, Olivia is so "whatever" about life she doesn't object when slovenly Marty (Bob Stephenson) argues down her fee. Her main leisure time activity appears to be cadging free samples of an anti-wrinkle lotion called Resolution at department stores all across town.

While Olivia has neither a boyfriend nor disposable income, her trio of married and moneyed friends in their 40s find their relationships in varying states of disarray. Hardly housewives and not all desperate, these women find that their plentiful creature comforts haven't made them nearly comfortable enough.

When we meet Christine (Keener, the heart of all three Holofcener films), she and David (Jason Isaacs), her husband and screenwriting partner, are approving a house remodel of a size sure to upset their neighbors because "we want it." It turns out to be practically the last thing they manage to agree on.

Also troubled, though with a better marriage, is Jane (McDormand). A successful dress designer, Jane is perpetually on a low boil, furious because the world doesn't work the way it should. Her anger is partly because everyone in town -- including her friends -- seems to think that her sweetly sensitive husband Aaron (Simon McBurney) is gay, but she has deeper reasons as well.

Easily the wealthiest of the three is Franny (Cusack), but it suits the film to have her and her husband, Matt (Greg Germann), enjoy the most satisfying marriage. Yet if anything their wealth has made them oblivious and obtuse, as Franny pushes Olivia into a hilariously inappropriate relationship with thickheaded personal trainer Mike (Scott Caan).

Mike is hardly alone in his self-centeredness: One of the things that unites Holofcener's characters is how oblivious they are to any reality outside their own. Brazenly self-absorbed, with a powerful sense of entitlement, these people know the perfect glib rationalizations to call on ("It's her choice" or "Are you trying to make me feel bad?") whenever other people's concerns make an unscheduled appearance.

"Friends" is acted with real camaraderie by actors who embody the essence of their characters, and who know how to convey the friendship and love that, in spite of how fiercely these women dish each other and their spouses in private, does exist between them.

For what "Friends With Money" wants to say is that, the difficulty and tentativeness involved in creating and sustaining relationships with friends and lovers notwithstanding, other people are finally all we have that counts. "I don't know what I'd do without you guys," the difficult Jane says at one point, and despite evidence to the contrary, she truly means it.

*

`Friends With Money'

MPAA rating: R for language, some sexual content and brief drug use

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener. Producer Anthony Bregman. Director of photography Terry Stacey. Editor Robert Frazen. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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