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June 06, 2006

Jennifer Aniston fails to find a great post-Friends vehicle: Friends With Money - Nicole Holofcener

Posted by Richard D. North

Friends With Money
Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
certificate 15, 2006

It's hard being poor, and it's even harder if you're poor around rich people. It's worse if the rich people are your friends. Better, as Jennifer Aniston finds out in this movie, to have them as employers. The problem arises because the rich lose the right to go on and on about their problems: whenever they do we want to shout that we know how to relieve them of the biggest one. If they don't have problems, their interest in ours seems almost anthropological, and again, we want to shout that we don't need their interest but some of their capital. Even at its best, we notice we can't give as good as we get, and that's hopeless, especially granted how expensive having rich friends can be.

In Friends With Money, Jennifer Aniston's Olivia is a middle class drop-out who works as an LA house-cleaner - a maid, as they call it there. As she dips in and out of the lives of the three couples who are her rich friends, she makes a fairly convincing fist of inhabiting the part. She seems, what she always seemed to be in Friends, a rather serious sort of young person. Here, she gets a chance to be troubled, nearly angry, and frustrated (there are lots of chaste moments with a vibrator). It has been said that this is the movie where she gets to shine. But it's not altogether true. She's given too few sharp moments. Or is there a more serious charge - that she fails to make or take them? Her character - which ought to be the most simpatico in the piece - is the only one really one wants to slap about, often.

Instead, and this is good, the rich are the ones we really like, and we like them in proportion to their being unabashed. They're a creative crew, but not in the showbiz vein that has been mined so well by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, ongoing). This lot are arty. They've already got everything, and they get the best lines too. The richest and the most outrageous character is Matt, played by Greg Germann, who did such an outstanding job exuding Teflon-plated insensitivity as Fish in David E Kelley's Ally McBeal (1997-2002). This sort of well-being reminds one of the portrait of the happy-go-lucky successful Republican beloved of the impeccably liberal Kelley in his outstanding new creation, Denny Crane in Boston Legal (ABC, on-going). "They'll be overwhelmed", says Frank's idle wife (very sharply done by Joan Cusack), as they buy Christmas presents for kids: "That's the point, isn't it?" he replies, contentedly. He's even agreeable when defending his purchase of $80 trainers for a toddler: he aims for an orthopaedic case, but one senses that he buys the "best" because it's there, and could care less.

The most obviously rewarding character is Jane, played by Frances McDormand, who carved her place in movie history with her stolid, intuitive Marge, the policewoman in Fargo (1996). Here she contrives to be bony, flaky and fierce. She designs over-priced clothes of a broadly hippie nature. No-one, including her, can make out why she's so explosively rude. Maybe we're supposed to believe it's because she's commercially greedy, but I prefer to see it as a matter of existential rage. She hasn't taken the Chill Pill. Her husband, Aaaron (done with understated grace by Simon McBurney) is happily heterosexual, is also in fashion, and gets hit-on (as people say) by men. At last, he's picked up by a man just like him, and there's an interesting stretch where the wives size each other up as potential pseudo-fag-hags.

There are other sub-plots, and decent performances from everyone. And yet one found oneself clocking gags and ploys as a runner counts laps. Here we are a third of the way round, and only beginning to get engaged. Ah, two-thirds round, and it's warming up, but is it too late? Now we're into the last stretch, and there'll be a sting in the tail. When it comes, it's not bad and turns the show into some sort of romantic comedy.

Along the way, we've had Jennifer playing Maids and Masters with a nasty but sexy personal trainer in a customer's house. It's a good example of what's wrong with the film. It is a scene which doesn't convey horniness, or comedy, or satire. It's just vaguely sad, and mostly ho-hum.

It is just possible that this film may reward reruns on television. Its wittiness may then compensate for its lack of centre. But it faces tough competition. We are ripe with odd-ball rom-coms, obviously. But we also have plenty of sharply-observed pieces on modern angst and materialism. (I'm afraid we come back to Sideways, 2004, as the most re-watchable example.) We've even had Jennifer hanging around rich people and being unlucky in love (The Object of My Affection, 1998). Closer (2004) gave us plenty to chew on in couple-watching. We're not short of fairly good enterprises on the maid-thing: Spanglish (1994) was quite good enough to take away the taste of Maid In Manhattan (2002).

We are still waiting for Aniston to have a great vehicle. It's obviously a tough call: her Friends colleague, Lisa Kudrow, had an outstanding moment with The Opposite of Sex (1998), but little since. Perfect gems are clearly few and far between. Aniston must have touched us in some way over the years: she's very rich and yet one wishes her better luck next time.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence.

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