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Friends with Money

In the 2002

Lovely and Amazing

, director Nicole Holofcener looked at a family of women: a mother treating herself to liposuction; two grown daughters struggling with self-image; and an eight-year-old adopted African American daughter wondering how she fits in. The family of women at the heart of

Friends with Money

is not related by blood. They are a quartet of women who met when they were young and wonder if they had met as adults would they have become friends. Of the four, Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is the odd one out or the friend without money. She's single, works as a freelance maid and lacks direction in life. Her friends with money'June (Frances McDormand), Christine (Catherine Keener) and Franny (Joan Cusack)'are all married and with careers or at least a perceived purpose in life. So when Franny announces that she's about to donate two million to her daughter's school, it sets in bold relief the social and economic gulf that has grown between the have's and the have-nots.

Franny tries to fix Olivia up with a personal trainer (Scott Caan) but he ends up tagging along on her housekeeping jobs and demanding half her pay. Meanwhile, June won't wash her hair and maintains a grudge against the world. Christine hasn't had sex with her husband in a year but is trying to collaborate with him on a writing project. And Franny coasts through life as housekeepers and nannies insure that she never has to engage in any of the messier aspects of day to day living.

Unlike Lovely and Amazing , Friends with Money offers more onscreen time to the men in these women's lives. The men, however, remain dramatically subordinate to the women. Everyone thinks June's husband Aaron (Simon McBurney) is a closeted gay; Christine's hubby (Jason Isaacs) doesn't seem to care that they haven't had sex and seems entirely wrapped up in himself; and Franny's spouse (Greg Germann) is on cruise control as he pampers his children.

As with her other films, Friends with Money serves up a sharply observed comedy with a particularly acute eye for human imperfection. The notion of perfection came up in Lovely and Amazing , as the mother played by Brenda Blethyn kept heaping praise on her daughters. This should've increased their self-image but instead it made one daughter feel all the more inadequate because she felt unworthy of her mother's compliments. In Friends with Money , there's very little praise tossed about but there is a lot of gossip and critical evaluation. As the women think they have their friends' lives and problems figured out, their own imperfections grow more obvious.

Holofcener once again delivers a chick flick but without the drippy sentimentality that often accompanies the genre. She sees flaws in her characters, yet doesn't judge them harshly. Instead, she suggests that life's not perfect and all we can do is try to make occasional improvements. Holofcener's film is refreshing for it's complex female characters that don't strive to be cute and likable like Meg Ryan or Reese Witherspon (that would be post- Election ). Holofcener's women are flawed, sometimes bitter, sometimes mean-spirited characters. But what redeems them is that we can identify with their human frailties and are touched by their occasional reaching out. Plus, Holofcener depicts them with a refreshing realism.

Friends with Money , as with Holofcener's other films, doesn't have a driving narrative and there's not a lot that happens. It's a film that's made up of small moments, brief insights and fleeting hope for change. Take Christine. She comes to recognize the lack of physical and emotional intimacy in her marriage, and when June's husband casually gives her a supportive hug, the look on Keener's face reveals how hungry Christine is for such comforting human contact. And I don't think it's revealing too much to say that Keener's face is the last thing we see in the film as we hear her maid inquire from off-screen if Christine is okay after bumping into a table. Once again, Keener's face registers a delicate pleasure at this simple and polite inquiry into her character's well being.

Keener, who worked with Holofcener in Lovely and Amazing , is most at home with the director's style and delivers an exceptional performance. She's well matched by McDormand who also builds layers of subtlety into her character. Cusack has the flimsiest of the roles but captures the oblivious but basically good-hearted nature of her character. Aniston is good but less complex than the other actresses. There's a certain novelty factor to casting the popular TV star as the directionless Olivia, and Holofcener generally exploits that contrast to the film's benefit.

Holofcener also likes to challenge stereotypes but not in expected ways. In Lovely and Amazing , the young African-American girl struggles with issues of how she should look, and her self-image, which in turn raise questions about the images we hold of African- Americans. In Friends with Money , there's a running gag about June's husband being gay, it's both funny and uncomfortable, the way such stereotyping sometimes occurs in real life.

Nicole Holofcener's Friends with Money (rated R) is a rare thing'a woman's picture with bite and savage humor rather than sentimentality.

Companion viewing: Lovely and Amazing , Nip/Tuck , Office Space -----

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