Poor Jennifer Aniston. First Brad Pitt dumps her in the most public break-up since "King Kong," and then, in her very next film, she has to play the unmarried and unattached fourth-wheel among well-to-do friends. But Olivia (Aniston), who quit teaching at a high-end school because the students kept trying to give her quarters, isn't pathetic because she's poor, "single, a pothead, and a maid." There are plenty of happy poor people, maids, potheads, and unmarried people in this world. This kid is a wreck because her friends' lives amplify the pettiness of her own with all the blaring clarity of a heavy metal concert.
While she's so poor that she's going all over town scamming free Lancôme skin products, one friend (Joan Cusack, as Franny) and her husband (Greg Germann, "Allie McBeal") are trying to decide which cause gets their money this year, and they're leaning toward handing 2.1 million dollars over to their daughter's school. Meanwhle, Christine (Catherine Keener) is a successful writer who works simultaneously on opposing computers with her co-writer spouse, David (Jason Isaacs). And Jane (Frances McDormand) seems to have nothing better to do with her life than shop until the clerks and other customers drop and fend off speculation that her husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney) is gay or bi-.
At one point, Franny wonders aloud whether they would be friends if they had met now instead of an unspecified "then." The answer, of course, is a big fat "no." These people have nothing in common. More pointedly, when they're together there's no sense that they are really close or caring about one another. There's none of the joking intimacy that you got with Aniston's TV "Friends," and none of the sisterhood bonding that the "Sex and the City" gang displayed. And we don't even get so much as a hint as to why they became friends in the first place, or why they continue. As a result, the film feels smart and interesting, but not all that emotionally engaging.
McDormand remarks in a bonus feature that third-time director Nicole Holofcener ("Walking & Talking," "Lovely & Amazing") is "really a great chronicler of female behavior." I won't argue with that. All of the women's behavior seems insightful and spot-on. Holofcener is also very good with dialogue and small moments, though one wishes for just a few larger ones to add a little stormy arc to an otherwise pretty even-keeled narrative.
Oh, there are small plots happening here and there. Holofcener, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to show that no life is all that wonderful. Catherine and David are so out of tune with each other that it takes her three weeks to notice he's shaved off his beard and he doesn't seem to notice (or care) if she burns herself in the kitchen. Franny is coping with that gay thing. But as for Jane? I guess the very rich do go happily on. When you add it all up, though, none of it amounts to much in the way of dramatic questions or narrative tension. The most interesting plot actually involves poor Olivia, who's so desperate that she agrees to a blind date with Jane's personal trailer (Scott Caan), and she's so hang-dog meek that she lets this arrogant, unprincipled, and lazy fellow do all sorts of things with (and to) her. But things pick up when a nerdy client of hers (Bob Stephenson) asks her out. Curiously, though, when the most engaging moments in a film jam-packed with big stars comes from an ordinary average overweight nerd, you know that the other characters haven't been given enough to make them memorable.
Video: Viewers can choose between 1.33:1 (full screen) or 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Though the DVD is mastered in High Definition, the original source materials were a little rough in spots, connected mostly to lighting conditions. When the light isn't just right there's considerably more graininess than in other scenes. But for the most part the picture is decent.
Audio: The audio options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 or French 2.0 Dolby Surround. The sound is better than the video, with a natural-sounding treble and pretty good distribution of ambient noises amid the predominant dialogue. Subtitles are in English and French.
Extras: The commentary with Holofcener and producer Anthony Bregman is better than most. It turns out that the script was quickly written, and the project spent just four-and-a-half weeks in pre-production before a 24-day film shoot, with three of those weeks in L.A. and one in New York. It's interesting to hear that the New York stuff was shot because McDormand will only spend a week away from her family, and so many of her interior scenes were shot close to her brood. We get stories about how the stars climbed on board, and plenty of examples of how low-budget the film was. Cameramen in bathtubs? The director crouching behind the back seat of a real car in a drive-and-talk scene because real cars and real driving was cheaper than the green screen or controlled models. But the most interesting stories concern Aniston's recent break-up and the fact that this film was the first chance that paparazzi had to stalk her. As I said, it's a better-than-average commentary that will especially appeal to film students and Aniston fans.
A behind-the-scenes featurette shows the stars on camera talking about their roles, the director, and the film, but it's one of those pre-release teaser's that's infinitely more interesting if you haven't already seen the film. The only other features are two fly-on-the-wall brief extras showing the L.A. premiere—you know, the usual red carpet stuff—and another on Sundance which is also pretty typical of such features.
Bottom Line: "Friends with Money" is a mixed bag. The dialogue and small moments in these women's lives seems absolutely right. It's just that, even for a character-driven slice-of-life ensemble film, it all feels surprisingly unemotional and one-note. You end up pulling for these characters not to succeed, necessarily, but to show you that they really care about anything.