Saturday, May 19, 2012

Desperate Women

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)

We went to see Friends with Money at the Cumberland on Good Friday afternoon, its first day of release, turning up around ten minutes early as usual, and found the place in the grip of a film-festival quality line-up, marked by mass confusion, angst about deliberate or inadvertent queue-jumping, passing cars stopping to ask what the fuss was all about, and all the other marks of a quiet film going world suddenly gone haywire. We stood in line for about half an hour, and then discovered that a steady stream of people had been circumventing all this and going straight to the members’ side of the ticket booth. We have members’ cards too, but we never thought of it. This could almost be the stuff of which riots are made.

Friends with Money

And what is it with people and the automatic ticketing machines? I agree that the menu format of the new batch of machines isn’t as friendly as it might be, but to me this just means you might take 40 seconds rather than 30. But I swear it takes the average person ten times that long. What are they doing? Diligently reading every single movie title and every single combo option? Simultaneously musing on that night’s dinner recipe? Are they caught in a moment of profound existential doubt that renders them unable to move? It’s all too frightening to contemplate.

Anyway, it’s very difficult to believe that this spectacle can be taken at face value – to indicate that Friends with Money was as significant an event for the Cumberland crowd as was the third Lord of the Rings film for the broader film going public. I guess it was the combination of a free day off and lousy weather. Such is the randomness of public acceptance. Which leads to another question. Is director Nicole Holofcener unlucky in only having been able to make three feature films in ten years (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing and now Friends with Money) or is she lucky to have had the opportunity to make at least that much?

Before seeing the new film I might have said she was unlucky. I can’t actually remember a thing about Walking and Talking, except that I really liked it (there’s a review for you!). Lovely and Amazing was however a remarkably comprehensive chronicle of feminine issues and hang-ups, with an already legendary scene in which the character played by Emily Mortimer stands naked and is critiqued by the Dermot Mulroney character. There’s a cringe-inducing melding there of actress and role – something that’s even more pronounced in another key character: an overweight young black girl whose behavioural problems feel uncomfortably embedded. A third focal point, played by Catherine Keener (who’s been in all three films) has an anger that goes way beyond a mere thematic device, frequently rendering it amazing that the movie can continue to function as a comedy. Lovely and Amazing often seems to be catering to psychotherapists more than to movie critics, but it’s certainly one of the most interesting edge-of-mainstream films about women.

 Female Viewpoints

The five years since then support great expectations for Friends with Money – what is it they say about the wisdom of crowds? – but these are not realized. It’s again a structure of multiple female viewpoints – four long-time friends, three of them married with varying degrees of success (in apparently descending order of happiness, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Keener) and a fourth, single, played by Jennifer Aniston, who has recently quit her teaching job to work as a maid. This opens up an important new investigative avenue for Holofcener – how poverty defines and limits the place of women. And the film’s best scenes show Aniston, a willing sucker for every male ploy and sob story, systematically allowing herself to be manipulated and exploited. Not to jump on a bandwagon, but it’s only a shame that Aniston is too blandly sunny an actress to push this to where it might have hurt.

In other ways too, the plush Los Angeles settings (the characters include a screenwriter, a designer of overpriced but popular clothing and another of up market bath products, and others who are simply loaded for unspecified reasons) don’t really help forge a case for the film’s broader relevance. The issues of the three monied couples seem at times merely like the fanciful melodrama that comes from having too much time on your hands. The McDormand character has anger management issues, and incidentally has stopped washing her hair because it just doesn’t seem worth it in the big scheme of things. But by the end, for no particular reason, she seems on the road to recovery. So what? And then there’s a running joke about people mistaking her husband as gay. His behaviour at times could hardly warrant any other conclusion, although it seems clear that he loves her, and desires her sexually. It’s a potentially interesting ambiguity, but not very convincing in its details, and it’s always in danger of seeming like a cheap shot.
 Overall, on this occasion Holofcener seems content to observe and very lightly parody, rather than to engage in any kind of diagnosis. The entire movie is a series of softballs that hardly evidence five years’ preparation. And at this point, regardless that Hollywood may still be primarily a man’s business, there have been plenty of movies that set out to show what women talk about when their partners aren’t around, or to delight in behind-the-back bitchiness. All too many of which seem to be set in or around the wonderful world of show business. The movie’s biggest disappointment, and the greatest proof of its low ambition, is in the happy ending it contrives for Aniston – a turn of events that will be denied to 99.999% of the maid population.

Lucy Liu

Which is probably about the same percentage of the maid population that would ever go to see a film at the Cumberland. Anyway, a couple of days afterwards I went to see Lucky Number Slevin (no line-up there of course), which is no more than a pleasant timewaster at best. Lucy Liu plays the kind of woman we’ve seen since the beginning of movies – she clicks with the hero from the first instant, accepts his wild predicament, is attractive and funny and extremely smart, is directly useful in that she’s a police coroner (this at least, if memory serves, marks her as unusual), sleeps with him on the first date, and in the last scene seems ready to throw in her fate with his completely. If that’s not a male fantasy, I don’t know what is. And yet this archetype, even at this late date, still seems to me a more promising object of investigation than the desperate wives of Friends with Money.

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