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Dollars and Sense 

Relationships are explored in rich seriocomic gem

Friends With Money is a sterling example of what I like to call movies that exist outside the margins.

Most films, good or bad, feature characters who exist only in the 90 or 120 minutes that we're watching them on screen. Their actions are specifically tied to whatever plot is unfolding during the course of the picture, and we get no sense of their lives outside of what we're being visually presented.

Movies that exist outside the margins successfully convey that what we're watching is merely a brief snippet of the characters' entire lives. Dependent on screenwriters' abilities to flesh out their creations, these movies make it easy to not think of these folks as being alive only as long as we're watching them but to envision them going about their business both before and after the events taking place on the screen.

Friends With Money, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, is that type of movie. Watching gloomy and insecure Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) make ends meet by working as a maid, it's easy to picture her back in middle school, perhaps going through an "ugly duckling" phase that might have scarred her for life. Or after witnessing Christine (Catherine Keener) bicker endlessly with her husband David (Jason Isaacs), we understand it wasn't always like this and find ourselves hoping for a glimpse of happier times -- maybe sharing a joint back at a college kegger, or perhaps gleefully getting soaked as they worked in unison to fix a busted pipe in their first apartment.

Movies that exist outside the margins can often be termed "slice of life" films, but when they're as tasty as this one, a slice won't suffice: We end up longing for the whole pie.

Set in LA, this seriocomic saga centers on the daily activities of four close friends who've known each other for quite some time. Three of them are the friends with money of the title, though two help prove any number of cash-strapped adages: money isn't everything; money can't buy happiness; money can't buy you love -- take your pick. Christine is co-writing a screenplay with David and having a gargantuan upper level added to their existing home, but she's bitter over the fact that her marriage seems to be heading toward a cliff. Meanwhile, Jane (Frances McDormand) is a fabulously successful clothing designer who's married to the terrific Aaron (Simon McBurney), but she's harboring such deep reservoirs of anger that any provocation -- a slow-moving waiter, someone taking her parking space -- seems to send her completely over the edge. Of the three, stay-at-home mom Franny (Joan Cusack) is the wealthiest and, interestingly, the most stable in terms of her marriage, friendships and emotions. Perhaps not coincidentally, she also comes across as the most coolly detached of the bunch.

The friend without money is Olivia, who, from the evidence here, has always been poor and once gave up a job as a school teacher because all her affluent students kept throwing quarters at her. Now she works as a maid, freelancing for various clients and spending the remainder of her time involved in a masochistic relationship with a shallow and casually cruel fitness instructor (Scott Caan).

These four women retain a mutually close relationship, which in turn allows them to bounce ideas and actions off each other. As the comparative pauper of the group, Olivia draws her friends' sympathies, as they're constantly trying to micromanage her affairs -- out of genuine concern, of course, but perhaps also as a way to assuage their liberal guilt and to avoid lingering on their own problems. Friends With Money is effective in the way it makes us relate to all these characters and their struggles as they grapple with universal issues involving camaraderie, self-worth and the inability to come to terms with one's own mortality.

I greatly enjoyed Holofcener's previous two pictures, 1996's Walking and Talking (also starring Keener) and 2002's Lovely & Amazing (ditto), but this might be her most accomplished work yet. Her greatest strength as a writer rests not in her dialogue (though it's top-grade) but rather in the manner in which she levels the playing field for her characters. Many scripters -- male and female -- tend to view the opposite sex as an entirely different species, resulting in films that either trivialize or demonize half the players. Holofcener, on the other hand, proves to be enormously generous of spirit. While her focus throughout her pictures has always remained squarely on the plight of the women, the men are allowed enough dimensions to hold up their end of the stories as well. What's more, they're allowed to be as likable -- sometimes more so -- than the ladies, a concept often lost on writers of the Fried Green Tomatoes persuasion.

The key relationship in this regard is the one between Christine and David. How easy it would have been for Holofcener to turn him into the heavy -- instead, understanding that it takes two to tangle as well as tango, she makes it clear that both spouses must share the blame for their rapidly deteriorating marriage. Caan's muscle-head jock clearly comes across as the vilest person in the picture (though I've known enough frat boys in my day to verify that he's hardly a caricature), but he's nicely balanced by the other man in Olivia's life, an unkempt slacker (Bob Stephenson) who's more than he initially appears to be. Franny's husband Matt (Greg Germann) clocks the least amount of screen time, yet it's enough to drive home the point that here's a man who's perfectly content with his marriage.

But the most interesting character in the film is Jane's hubby Aaron, an affable British bloke who's assumed by practically everyone to be gay simply because he's sensitive and speaks in a delicate cadence. The matter of Aaron's perceived homosexuality becomes the film's running gag, and it only serves to reinforce Holofcener's opinion that no one should be judged by surface appearances -- not even affluent Los Angelenos.

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