On the occasion of Nicole Holofcener’s latest film making its debut in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote of her third feature. Friends with Money is arguably the writer-director’s weakest film, and it still has a lot to like in it. Others can hop onto their soapboxes and offer anguished diatribes about the harms inflicted by the Netflix model on art house theaters. They’re not entirely wrong. But as far as I’m concerned, if the streaming service has an approach that allows creators like Holofcener to keep plying their trade at an increasingly inhospitable time for smaller films in the theatrical marketplace, there is heroism at play.
I don’t think Friends with Money is actually about having friends with money. While the film is largely designed as an ensemble, Jennifer Aniston is pretty clearly the lead. She plays a thirtysomething woman who is working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her job as a prep school teacher, perhaps in part because of the wounded pride that comes from toiling away for teenagers driving cars that are worth more than an educator’s yearly salary. On top of it all, her financial struggles aren’t reflected in the lives of her three closest friends, all of whom are successful enough to do things like erect a pricey addition on the top of their house or openly debate which charity is most deserving of that extra two million that’s lying around the house. The set-up definitely feels like it’s leading up to film in which schisms created between people with vastly different bank statements are a central driving theme; class warfare on a personal level.
But that movie never really emerges. There are some nicely drawn scenes scattered throughout, such as when Aniston talks to one of her friends about the investment required to take classes that could lead to a new career path, but it rarely feels like the film is digging as deeply as it could. Maybe that’s because Aniston’s character usually comes across as little more than directionless: there’s no weight to her problems, no sense of the day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck struggles that come from working on the front lines of the service industry. She cleans strangers’ homes for money and that’s enough to make us feel her pain, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because there’s so much other ground to cover, so many other corners of the film’s various stories to dig into. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener creates compelling, deeply considered characters, and it must be tempting to follow them wherever they lead, whether or not it adheres to the overarching idea that’s being conveyed.
Holofcener’s previous film was 2001’s smart Lovely and Amazing, which may have skewed expectations for how effectively this new film would cohere. While packed with characters, Lovely managed to continually return to female self-image, particularly body image. It may have seemed a little aimless at times, but every element actually enhanced and enlivened Holofcener’s points, and she demonstrated a dramatist’s skill to keep the proceedings from turning into an awkward op-ed piece on celluloid.
To be fair, I admired Lovely and Amazing far more in retrospect than I did right after walking out of the theater. Holofcener’s lack of bombast or arty inclinations can dull that initial impression, but the intellect of her writing proves more resonant. Maybe that will happen with this film, as well. There certainly is plenty to like. Giving meaty roles to Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack merits applause right off the bat, and Holofcener’s dialogue remains as sharp as razor-wire (here she shows a special skill for constructing the escating pettiness of an argument). Yet, while praising the script, it’s worth noting that her writing suffers from a newfound flaw of concocting endings that are too cutesy and pat.
So, what is the film about? Whether or not it’s Holofcener’s intent, it seems to be about the judgments people casually make about other people, the speculation about everything from marital stability to personal hygiene choices. In Holofcener’s view, no one forgoes this unseemly guesswork. It’s the same if you’re driving away from a friendly dinner in a battered old Honda or a big, new, top-of-the-line S.U.V. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your friends have money.