Friends with Money 2006 United States, Nicole Holofcener.
Friends with Money is not the quirky, upbeat comedy that its trailer seemed to promise. Instead, it’s about the role that money plays in our American lives and in our American dreams. There are laughs, to be sure, and the film has a nominally “happy” ending, but director Nicole Holofcener’s uncompromisingly stern look at modern life is unlikely to put a bounce in your step as you leave the theater.
Like last year’s Nine Lives, Friends with Money has been rightly praised for showcasing the talents of its cast of older women. It’s impossible to overstate what a boon it is to see such consummate professionals as Joan Cusack (Franny), Catherine Keener (Christine), Frances McDormand (Jane), and even Jennifer Aniston (Olivier) plying their trade in satisfying, nuanced leading roles, all in the same film.
It begins with these old friends at dinner along with their husbands (only Olivia is unmarried). As the film unfolds in an episodic chain of loosely connected almost-vignettes it becomes apparent that these women define their relationships with each another based on their perceptions of their relative wealth and happiness. This in turn plays a substantial role in the way each sees herself.
By the end of the film the balance is slightly altered–when they meet once more for dinner Olivia is no longer single and one of the other women is–but there’s been no significant character development. Without resorting to histrionics, Holofcener has laid bare the room merely by rearranging the furniture.
These characters employ an elaborate calculus of envy and condescension to gauge their friendship, but life doesn’t lend itself so easily to quantification. We are constantly changing and our relationships evolve apace. “Wealth” and “happiness” are just words and any consideration of ourselves, and more especially of our relation to others, that depends on their estimation is doomed to fallaciousness. In Friends with Money, as in reality, the signs of life- and relationship-altering shifts are writ small in subtle changes.
Of course, this doesn’t stop us from defining ourselves based on the external marks of our prosperity and well-being, and this is why Friends with Money feels so steeped in melancholy. By culminating in Olivia admitting in words something we’ve known since the first scene, “I have problems, too,” the film’s narrative privileges the idea that the verbal acknowledgement of a problem constitutes growth.
This carries the very real suggestion that maybe America is broken. Maybe in modern society, built as it is from words and ideas, true happiness is impossible, or at least maybe it’s not what we really want. Consider Franny, for example: she’s the one character who is happy and content, but she’s portrayed as a bit ridiculous.
Friends with Money is about successful, wealthy women. Unlike many films about the upper class, though, it’s message isn’t simply “rich people have problems, too.” By showing us these distressed characters who have achieved the goals that the rest of us strive towards, it implies that maybe there’s a serious problem endemic to these goals.
Jane’s realization that fulfilling her dream has left her nothing more to work for and feeling “like she’s just waiting to die” is extraordinarily depressing because it’s unlikely to convince anyone in the audience to reconsider their own ambitions. Money may not buy happiness, but it’s still a buyer’s market.
This is a bitter pill made even harder to swallow by the film’s glossy, cheerful packaging. Friends with Money is a fine film, with an excellent script and a wonderful cast. But be prepared: like a cup of chamomile tea that contains a drop of arsenic, it’s not easy to digest.