On one of his newer albums, The Devil You Know, Todd Snider has a song entitled, “Just Like Old Times.” In it, he sings of an old friend, “Living out our own kind of American dream…. Your goal was always the same as mine…. You didn’t want to throw a fishing line in that old main stream…and you didn’t.” Snider might as well be singing about Jennifer Aniston’s character, Olivia, in Nicole Holofcener’s film Friends With Money. The film did not have a terribly long theatrical run and has been out on DVD for quite some time. The film’s juxtaposition of the rich and the “just-getting-by,” both polluted by their own kinds of problems, raises great questions about success, happiness, and well-lived lives.
Friends With Money focuses on a group of four middle-aged girlfriends, three of whom, Christine (Catherine Keener), Franny (Joan Cusak), and Jane (Frances McDormand), are all financially secure to say the least. Franny and her husband, Matt, just donated $2 million to their daughter’s school. Jane designs beautiful, yet over-priced clothes, for women. Christine and her husband David are scriptwriters. The proverbial odd (wo)man out, Olivia recently quit her job as a high school teacher and works as a maid, much to her friends’ chagrin and her acquaintances’ disbelief.
Olivia also differs from her friends as she is the only unmarried, childless one in their group. Olivia apparently had a run of bad boyfriends, culminating with a two-month long affair with a married man over whom she still obsesses. Franny sets her up with Mike (Scott Caan), her personal trainer, but they both quickly realize that he is an ultimate jerk. Though Olivia may have had her share of difficulties with the opposite sex, at least she has not married into these problems. Christine realizes more and more just how inconsiderate her husband David truly is. Jane is convinced that every man is out to steal her husband Richard, who all of her friends think is secretly gay. Ironically, the “friends with money,” Franny and Matt, seem to have the best marriage of the three. Franny’s main complaint about Matt is that he spoils their children.
Yet this is not to say that Franny and Matt have the perfect life. The frustrations that Franny feels are endemic of the group. Moroever, Franny and Matt’s tendency to focus on their friends’ problems or to gossip about them typify all of the friends. Again, while they seem happy, a malaise underlies these relationships. Franny, like her friends, still questions her life’s purpose and direction and implicitly longs for more out of it. She throws gala’s for charities and donates large sums of money to organizations (as do Christine and Jane and their husbands), yet they still feel at a loss, a loss that will not be sated by new material goods or a larger house.
Opposed to all of this stands Olivia who fights the battle of who could care less. Money and success do not consumer her, although she logistically worries about having enough of the former. She is content to be a maid and, from all accounts, is quite good at her job. She questions the validity of gala’s that raise money for charities by charging $1,000 for each plate. Why can’t we just give the charities money directly she asks? It seems that Olivia’s question begins to get at the heart of the matter here. Her desire for closer involvement and connection is the answer to the problems her friends face. Her friends all live active lives, but they are all fairly self-centered (Christine doesn’t even realize that expanding their house will ruin their whole neighborhood’s view of the ocean). On the other hand, Olivia lives her life in service, somewhat, to others as she cleans up their messes. However, Olivia is no saint as she confesses at the end of the film, “I’ve got problems.” She still longs for a deeper personal relationship…for someone with whom she can share her life.
Friends With Money does more than prove that money can’t buy happiness as it delves deeply into marriage and uncovers the real frustrations and flaws that lie there. Unlike the majority of films these days, Holofcener places her female characters at the center of the film, leaving men on the margin. Yet even with her female-centered approach, she offers a story that is both individual and universal and one that ponders the possibility of living out a different kind of American dream