Frank talk about money is the last taboo, a prohibition with a particularly weird effect on women. The same brassy babe who will describe her sex life in fearless gynecological detail gets all demure when it comes to describing her financial bottom line, even to her closest friends. And how she feels about that money whether it's a lot or a little, whether earned or bestowed, and whether she envies Friend X's suspected greater wealth or knows with smug satisfaction that she's better off than Friend Y is more likely to remain a secret than her kinkiest bedroom fantasy. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, whose previous two features, Lovely & Amazing (2002) and Walking and Talking (1996), also offer insights into neurotic gynocentricity, appreciates this peculiar twist in female wiring. And she seizes on the subject with sisterly rue, donating the best moments in Friends With Money to a dissection of feminine net-worth envy.
To be clear, Holofcener is talking about bank- account competition in Los Angeles (where wealth loves to preen) among an elite quartet of uncommon women who will never have to take the bus in their own City of Tangible Goods. Not even Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), by far the most struggling of the foursome in Holofcener's setup and ostensibly the chick around whom the three more affluent friends cluck, is that poor: A former teacher at a tony private school, she quit her salaried position for unspecified reasons of malaise and is currently self-employed as a freelance housekeeper, relieving dull hours spent with a vacuum cleaner with more exciting moments spent with a vibrator found in a client's bedside drawer. Or as one friend bluntly puts it, ''She's unmarried, she's a pothead, and she's a maid.'' Christine (stalwart Holofcener muse Catherine Keener) frets about her pal to husband David (Jason Isaacs), Christine's status-conscious partner in lucrative screenwriting and floundering marriage. Franny (Joan Cusack), the girlfriend happiest in motherhood and marriage (to Greg Germann as appreciative hubby Matt) and most cushioned by wealth, worries about Olivia with gentle distraction when not working out with a personal trainer or looking for worthy causes on which to bestow big bucks. Meanwhile, Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful fashion designer married to supportive, ambiguously gay Aaron (British theater director Simon McBurney) irresistible in his excitement about cashmere and Nip/Tuck doesn't so much worry as fume about injustice everywhere: In her early 40s, she's so sick and tired of life's daily frictions that she can't be bothered to wash her hair. (In an excitingly offbeat cast, McDormand stands out, loose and lively.)
Back, though, to Olivia and that vibrator. The Friend Without Money also likes to hoard free samples of pricey face creams, she dates a loser (conveniently, he's Franny's trainer) who treats her shabbily, and she persists in phone-stalking a married man with whom she had a brief affair months ago. This adult woman in her 30s, in other words, acts out like a kook (to put it kindly), and occasionally like one of those crazy girls on gently transgressive cable TV-type fare like Sex and the City or Six Feet Under.
Holofcener, by the by, has directed multiple episodes of both. And therein lies the movie's fault line. Introducing Friends With Money when it opened the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, fest head Geoffrey Gilmore praised the pic as a superior example of Sundance quality, and a sterling specimen of quirky Amerindie moviemaking at its most polished (and female-powered, too!); he also hitched the festival's wagon of reputation to the filmmaker's stardom, noting that Holofcener is an alumna of the Sundance Institute who premiered her first feature, a film lab project, in Park City. There is, indeed, a discernible clarity to the actual filmmaking here, and an attractive feminine wit evident in the artistry. But there is also a manufactured symmetry, an every-gal's-got-issues roundness, an HBO sitcomitude to the movie that undercuts its own observational intelligence.
It might not have been as easy for the scriptwriter to contrast Olivia with her richer friends for comic effect had the Bridget Jonesy singleton only been an ''average'' working girl, i.e., holding a decent, unexceptional job. And a less pitiable Olivia might have been less satisfying for Aniston, since the actress seems hell-bent on playing women who haven't been granted the happiness they by rights deserve. Such a ''real'' Olivia with wallet issues would, however, have explained how the foursome could be friends in the first place. She might have pushed the movie from the territory of Carrie Bradshaw to that of Edith Wharton. She might have inspired a less predetermined Sundance indie. Or is that, too, taboo?