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Ladies first 

Female tales take the lead in Friends with Money

In Nicole Holofcener's spry debut film Walking and Talking, Manhattan Gen-Xers grappled with being single in the city and the bittersweet pangs of growing up and putting away childish things.

In Holofcener's third film, Friends with Money, those characters -- or at least women who look a lot like them -- have grown up, established careers, married and had children. But though the circumstances are different, the angst remains the same. Whether thirtysomething or fortysomething, the opinionated, flinty, oh-so-real women in Holofcener's films are still part of the generation that thinks too much.

Vanity Fair describes Friends with Money as "a female Big Chill for Generation X," a pretty apt summation of the belly-gazing that characterizes the hypercritical best friends in Holofcener's universe.

Older but not necessarily wiser, the upper-middle-class Angelenos in Friends with Money worry that their homes aren't big enough, they are growing older, and as the title suggests, their friends are enjoying the easy, financially secure life while they continue to fret about money.

To many viewers, the complaints of the neurotic, well-off Left Coasters in Friends with Money may seem ludicrous for such an enormously privileged lot, with their glamorous jobs, svelte figures, great haircuts and hip digs.

Christine (Catherine Keener) and her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), are screenwriters who work from home and are in the process of super-sizing their modest but hip bungalow. Jane (Frances McDormand) and Aaron (an adorable Simon McBurney) are, respectively, a fashion designer and a metrosexual manufacturer of high-end toiletries who everyone assumes is gay.

Franny (Joan Cusak) and Matt (Greg Germann) are just rich.

Rich enough to donate $2 million to their children's school. And apparently rich enough to have bought their way out of unhappiness.

Instead, they spend their time discussing their friends' worries and having carefree sex while savoring the smell of the expensive shampoos that perfume their well-maintained bodies.

The odd woman out is Olivia, played by Jennifer Aniston, who already has shown her knack for playing hangdog working girls in Office Space and The Good Girl. And Aniston's post-Brad/Angelina humiliation has imbued her screen personas with an even greater element of life-battered road burn.

Olivia has quit her teaching job at a fancy private school to smoke pot, clean houses and pine for a married lover who has gone back to his wife.

For Olivia and her circle of friends, money isn't just money. It's a form of communication: the means for Olivia's new boyfriend to mind-fuck her, for Franny to exert control over her friends, and for Christine and David to distract themselves from their crumbling marriage in a very expensive home addition.

Like director Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) -- who also graduated from Columbia University's film school -- Holofcener specializes in smart, interesting, sexy-at-any-age women whose complicated lives and insecurities speak to the stressful nature of modern life. Holofcener brings a shaggier, female-centric sensibility to her meticulously observed films that blends the art-house sensibility of Eric Rohmer with the small-screen yuppie ennui of thirtysomething.

Such darkly angsty chicks and their anxiety-wracked lives are a too infrequent cinematic genre in a cinema filled with hapless, boy-crazy, grown-up Gidgets like Bridget Jones and her Glamour magazine lot. Holofcener is able to make her characters believably neurotic, even a little masochistic, without reducing them to chick flick clichés. Olivia is particularly successful in that regard, with her thinly disguised self-hatred expressed by lovingly tending to other people's messes while she ignores her own.

At every turn, from casting to a freeform narrative style that is more conversational and anecdotal than hung up on dramatic twists and turns, Friends with Money is clearly filmmaking with a female touch.

The actresses, rather than their screen husbands, have all the best scene-chewing and are the richer characters. They also bear a resemblance, in their less-than-perfect looks and often frumpy, mopey ways, to real women. The menfolk skate blithely on the plot surface while the women machinate and worry.

The current grande dame of edgy, older sex goddesses, Frances McDormand virtually steals the show, offering another endearing performance as a wife and mother who festers and rages as an expression of some inner, unnamed psychological issue. Picking fights at Old Navy, battling over parking spaces, simmering over perceived and real insults, Jane is a profoundly flawed but deeply sympathetic character. When she's not tormenting the world, Jane is tormenting herself, refusing to wash her hair because she's just too tired. Too tired for sex. Too tired for happiness.

It is a real tribute to Holofcener's deft handling of her ensemble cast and her observant, fly-on-the-wall writing that spending time embroiled in these women's problems never feels like a burden, but more often a pleasure.

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