Who Needs Plot?

'Friends With Money' proves compelling characters, great dialogue can carry a film

What if they made a movie, and there wasn't any plot? I mean, people are always complaining that Hollywood recycles the same old stories over and over again. And why wouldn't they? They churn out thousands of films every year. How many possible stories could there be?

Nicole Holofcener addresses the problem of peak-story reserves by making the plotless Friends With Money, wherein she establishes that narrative thrust is as unnecessary as microwaveable tampons.

Instead of story, the film follows the daily doings of four female friends in their 40s who are not at crossroads in their lives. There's wealthy leisure mom Franny (Joan Cusack), angry dress designer Jane (Frances McDormand), unhappily married screenwriter Christine (Catherine Keener) and their loserish, stoner friend Olivia (Jennifer Aniston).

The publicity campaign for Friends With Money has been playing up Aniston as the star, but the film really belongs to McDormand, who's close to perfect in a tremendously unsympathetic role. In spite of having everything she's ever dreamed of--a fabulous career, a family, one of those cars that you have to plug directly into Dubai just to gas it up and a husband who's so gay he's straight--Jane is mad at everyone. She spends the whole movie yelling at waiters and soccer moms and random African Americans. And she rebels against the world by not washing her hair, because she'll just have to wash it again the next day, and she's sick of that.

As a character, Jane is so well-drawn that she practically plops off the screen, sits down next to you and then bitches you out for eating your popcorn too loudly. This is due in large part to Holofcener's script, but the writing would be just dead words on a page without McDormand's seamless interpretation. Lately, there's been a movement to consider screenwriters as "authors" of films rather than directors. McDormand's performance makes it clear that sometimes an actor is the real author. Someone should give her a statue of a little bald man holding a sword.

But they should also reserve one for Simon McBurney, who plays her husband, Aaron. Aaron is fashionable and well-mannered to such an extent that men all want to make love to him in a special manly way. This seems to bother Aaron, in that he considers himself an Adam-and-Eve sort of guy, and not an Adam-and-Anal-Sex-With-a-Man sort of guy.

McBurney shows the most range of any of the performers. He has coy and embarrassing encounters with the many men who want adult time with him; he seems comforting and at ease when dealing with his wife's depression, and yet he comes across as forceful and strongly reasonable when he finally asks her, "What horrible injustice was done to you that you need to get so angry?"

Rounding out the cast, Keener is good as always, though her part isn't as juicy as some of the others. Cusack has the smallest role and is probably the least-interesting character, but that's a necessary aspect of the way this script works.

The only letdown is Aniston, who's fine, really, but she plays her part in broad sitcom strokes, and with the other performers doing a more subtle style of film acting, this stands out. Aniston also has had a lot of plastic surgery, and where the other women look like women in their 40s, Aniston looks like a brand-new android, fresh off the factory line.

But she has a lot of comic charm. I think she could be great in a more traditionally comic role. It's just that Friends With Money, though hilariously funny, gets its laughs from character rather than from shtick. Anyway, she hardly ruins the film; she just reminds us that it is a film when it's been doing such a good job of seeming like an extremely well-lit and well-shot hidden-camera documentary.

At least as far as the naturalness of the performances goes. Script-wise, this is way better than a documentary could hope to be. The dialogue is freakishly sharp and funny, and covers such topics as paralysis in children, Reese Witherspoon's knitting speed and how often we see our mates' anuses.

It's all important material that needs to be discussed in a modern society on the verge of singular transformation, and all stuff that gets lost if our films focus too much on story. I was glad that writer/director Holofcener found a way to bring these issues to the fore, and found a solution to the problem of regurgitated content in film. That the solution was to base a movie's interest on compelling characters and thoughtful, funny and well-written dialogue may seem strange in a world that nominates animated donkeys and penguins to high-ranking cabinet positions, but it's a still a good solution, and one worth seeing.

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