Beyond the Multiplex

The director of "Friends With Money" gave Jennifer Aniston stained pants and Catherine Keener a "fat ass." And her movie gave me nightmares.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 6, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Hanging out with Nicole Holofcener is a lot of fun. That isn't generally the way I would describe meeting film directors in the artificial surroundings of a hotel room and the orchestrated blitzkrieg of a "press day," as I do almost every week. Usually it's like a brief blind date with someone you don't know, but with whom you supposedly have something in common. (They've made a movie, and you've seen it.) It's partly a real conversation, partly a performance and partly a pure business transaction; it's partly friendly and partly adversarial.

With Holofcener, the operative illusion was more like she was the old friend of an old friend, and we had wound up sitting on the sofa at a party, talking about her new movie, which I happened to have seen. A college pal of hers, a Janeane Garofalo-esque hipster type, dropped by and sat in the corner reading Jill Soloway's infamous humor article "Courteney Cox's Asshole." Catherine Keener, one of the stars of the movie in question, "Friends With Money," stuck her head in the door, wearing fabulous sunglasses, and wanted to know whether Holofcener was sleeping. "No, I'm doing an interview," the latter said. "It's not the same thing."

Some of this ease and comfort and good humor is present, at least on the surface, in "Friends With Money." It's often a funny film, made with high production values in a familiar mode, the middle-class marriage comedy. This means, as Holofcener admits, that some viewers will simply miss how ruthless, how sharply observed and how potentially subversive it is. At first glance, and maybe at second too, "Friends With Money" looks like an upscale chick flick, loaded with stellar Indiewood actresses -- Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener and Joan Cusack -- playing a group of old friends facing middle age together.

I suppose it is an upscale chick flick, as long as you're willing to put the best films of Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Albert Brooks and Elaine May -- not to mention Ingmar Bergman -- in a similar category. What "Friends With Money" isn't, despite what you may read elsewhere or imbibe from publicity material, is a lightweight comedy of manners providing reassuring bromides about the essential goodness of Americans or the nurturing power of female solidarity. This is a dense and sophisticated work about mortality, materialism, madness, jealousy and pity, a movie in which the fabulous duds are ripped off the "Sex and the City" gals (Holofcener directed several episodes of that series) and they're left teetering on the edge of the abyss, hair unwashed and wearing stained sweats.

Holofcener's films (the others are "Walking and Talking" and "Lovely & Amazing") have always tried to transcend both Hollywood fantasy and canned feminist cliché, and "Friends With Money," although her glossiest and most expensive work by far, is no exception. As has been widely observed, the four friends in this movie look real. Their clothes are nothing special -- Aniston spends much of the film in a pair of shapeless blue sweat pants, which is what you'd wear too if you were cleaning somebody else's house for a living -- they don't wear much makeup, and they essentially all look their ages.

Franny (Cusack) and her husband, Matt (Greg Germann), are a fabulously wealthy Los Angeles couple, the proverbial friends with money, and everybody else in their social circle is reacting to their wealth, their loving marriage, their perceived happiness. Christine (Keener) and her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), are screenwriters in a failing marriage. In a last-ditch effort to hold things together, they're building a gruesome top-floor addition to their home, without quite noticing or caring about its effect on their neighbors. Jane (McDormand) is a fashion designer who's having a private, quiet breakdown, refusing to shampoo her hair for weeks on end and flying into unpredictable rage attacks in Old Navy. Everyone seems to think her charming, spritelike husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), is actually gay, including the gay men who constantly hit on him.

That leaves Olivia (Aniston), the group's designated sad-sack charity case. She's abandoned her so-called career as a high school teacher, and as Franny observes to her husband, she's a maid, a pothead and a single woman with a disastrous dating record. The other three view her with a mixture of pity and distaste, openly discussing the fact that if they met her today, they'd never be her friends. When Franny sets Olivia up on a date with her personal trainer (whose only question is "How are her tits?"), a chain of events is launched that will further destabilize the chemistry between the friends.

It's been said that Holofcener isn't much of a dramatist, but you could say the same thing about Chekhov. Her plot points are more like symbolic markers that identify deep-water spots: Will Jane ever wash her hair? Is Aaron going to sleep with a guy? Will Olivia find a boyfriend who'll actually look at her while they have sex? Is Christine ever going to become aware of the egotistical bubble she lives in? These questions of course are not trivial to the people in the movie, and as I told Holofcener, the people in the movie seemed acutely, even painfully real to me. I didn't always like them, but I felt like I knew them all too well.

Some people, perhaps a lot, just won't like "Friends With Money." Maybe because it takes beloved actresses and makes them into troubled, not-so-lovable characters, or because its glossy movie-movie surface hides a dark and astringent center. Those people are at least getting the point; it's also possible that some people who like it will just laugh at Holofcener's zingers and sail on by. Neither response is wrong. As the filmmaker herself is aware, packaging a difficult, spiny, serious blend of comedy and drama in such a way that millions of Americans will see it is a nearly impossible trick to pull off.

Holofcener takes particular delight in telling me what a grim and depressing tale she has to tell. Absolutely none of the angst of her film penetrates our conversation, although she's obviously pleased that her movie upset me. She's sharp, funny and attractive in a smart-girl way, and could easily pass for 10 years younger than her age (which is 46). She finishes your questions for you and then answers them thoughtfully; she laughs easily and a lot. Like I said, it was a great time.

Well, it took you six years to make your second movie, and now four years to make your third. At least the interval is getting shorter.

Maybe! I hope so! It's not because I haven't been trying. I don't know, time just goes by really fast. The only way to make movies a lot is to be constantly working. I'm just not a believer in that. I'm just not that ambitious!

I feel like I've been needing to talk to you. This movie affected me in a way that doesn't often happen, and I see, like, 200 movies a year.

It affected you in a good way? I'm so glad.

Was it a good way, or a bad way? I don't know. It really bothered me. It stuck with me dramatically more than most movies do. Usually I can sit down with the director and have this dispassionate conversation about the themes of the film or the casting process, or whatever. But this time I'm in the class of people directly indicted.

You're really rich?

I'm not. But I felt like I knew these people, or could know them. And while I was watching the movie, I felt like I didn't like them. But afterward, I was like, well, they reminded me too much of myself, or anyway of people in my own social class.

So you would have walked out going, "I did not like that movie." That was the feeling?

No, that's totally not fair. But I had trouble sleeping after seeing it. The people were real to me. I was concerned about them and irritated by them, and consumed with questions about their fates.

They all die in the end. I hate to break it to you. [Laughter.]

Well, true. But it definitely wasn't Catherine Keener and Jennifer Aniston up there, you know, women who are famous and who I don't really know. They were real people. It reminded me too much of being 13 years old and watching Bergman's "Scenes From a Marriage" with my parents.

Oh, no! You were too young to see that movie.

I know. It scarred me.

Me too. I know. I saw that when I was too young. Your parents sat you down and were like: "This is what you have to look forward to!"

Right. I was like, "Holy shit, this is what it's all about!" And here I am, 30 years later, having something like the same reaction. Your film has something of that intensity, that immediacy.

It's not a pretty picture. [Laughter.] It's not. I think that some of my own self-loathing is definitely in there. You know, when I recognize things about myself that I don't like, and that I'm ashamed of. Like my materialism, or the fact that I'm not saving children in Ethiopia. That I care about petty things. As I get older, more mature, I learn to forgive myself my human foibles. But I also put them out there. I am that person who wants that piece of furniture, because it's cool and nice. But I can also see myself wanting that piece of furniture, and how repellent that is to the person who can't even afford to pay their rent or buy health insurance, or send their kids to a decent school.

All that self-awareness is enough to just make you want to stay in bed. So I feel like I put that out there: I'm up there. I'm as repellent as everybody else. But somehow I can forgive myself, because I think, well, I know I'm repellent. [Laughter.] Is that better? If you know what you sound like? I don't know.

I don't know either. But what you've dramatized here is, like, the central crisis of being a somewhat intelligent, somewhat aware person living in this society. On that level, it's devastating. Honestly, going into the movie, I was expecting something lighter.

Oh. No, it's grim. [Laughter.] I've been telling Sony, "You guys, you can't run around acting like this is light comedy. This is a depressing movie!" I mean, I was depressed writing it.

You know, you hear about the cast, and you see the picture of Jennifer in her cute French maid's outfit that's been everywhere [including the Salon cover image] and you think ...

"Love American Style"! I make a point of saying this is not a light comedy, and I hope it's not received that way. I want people to be blown away by it. I want people to be disturbed by it.

For example, it took me so long to figure out Christine, Catherine Keener's character. In the context of the story, she seems like a sympathetic figure, a nice, well-rounded woman with good friends. And you know, it's Catherine Keener -- she's funny, she's sexy, we like her. Her husband makes comments about her ass. He seems like kind of a bully, kind of insensitive. But I finally realized that the things he says about her are pretty much true.

Yeah, she's completely oblivious to the choices she has made. Whereas he's at least in touch with what he's doing.

Right. And those of us who live in this society are on some level making a choice like hers, a choice not to see certain things or think about certain things.

Yeah. There's a price. She wants a view of the ocean, but she doesn't want to pay the price. You know, I did not feel that the Jason Isaacs character was the asshole in the relationship at all. It's funny, when he says: "You've been eating a lot of shit lately. I can see it on your ass." There's part of me that does believe a husband is allowed to say that. You know? I mean, Keener's so skinny that it's kind of ridiculous, and that's unfortunate for the story. I wanted to keep it in anyway.

And you weren't going to go for a prosthetic ass, right? This isn't that kind of movie.

[Laughter.] She's wearing one. You couldn't tell? That would be funny, if she got up and was wearing, like, a pillow in her pants. "Oh, your ass is getting a little fat!"

No, seriously. Yes, it's a jab, because they don't respect each other or like each other at this point. But I did not mean for him to be the only asshole! She's an asshole in her own oblivious, unconscious way. Every time he disagrees with her, when they're writing together, she falls apart. He accuses her of that, and it's true. He's not bullying her! She just says he is. People don't catch that in the script, because it goes by so fast and his insults are so much louder and sharper than her neuroses. But she's in there, ruining this marriage along with him.

People may well miss that, I'm afraid. Partly, you're battling this stereotype: It's a woman filmmaker and she makes movies about women, therefore the men are all going to be presented as...

Assholes? Some men are assholes. I don't feel like it's my job to portray men fairly. It's not! There are so many movies by men that don't portray women fairly. And what's fair? I'm just writing about these particular people. I'm not writing about a gender. And look, I happen to think that Aaron is the kindest, most evolved person in the script, and he's a man.

One more thing about Christine. When she has a crisis about the addition they're building, and wants to tell the workmen to stop, she can't even communicate with them. Her husband comes out of the house, and he actually speaks pretty good Spanish. He can talk to them more or less like human beings.

There's another scene where she comes out of the house at one point and they're all having lunch. She doesn't even acknowledge them. With her guilt about hiring underpaid Mexican workers to build a disgusting addition to her house, she'd rather just not acknowledge any of it. These are not even people sitting on my lawn.

Also, Keener's character is the one who keeps saying, "Aaron's gay, Aaron's gay, Aaron's gay." It's like, shut up already! What is your point? She keeps saying it because she wants someone else's marriage to be as bad as hers. She can't bear the thought that Jane could be in denial about her husband's sexuality. And yet her whole problem is denial. So you see, I'm a very complicated writer! You think that Christine is just a victim, but no, no, no. We're all complicated, and nobody's the good guy or the bad guy in a marriage. I don't feel it's that black and white, ever.

I appreciated Aaron a lot, speaking as a borderline member of that demographic myself: the straight man who many people suspect to be gay. He's a sweet and, I think, very convincing character of a type you don't often see in movies. I was on his side.

That's good. You didn't think he was gay? Or you didn't care?

Well, I didn't really care. I didn't really think he was, but I also didn't feel like it was necessary for me to know.

A lot of people do: "So is he gay? Is he?" They think the movie's going in that direction: A big affair is coming, the wife's nervous breakdown.

Well, that part definitely happens. OK, let's talk about Frances McDormand's hair. Did she really not wash it? Because it sure looks dirty.

She washed her hair. When she got the part, she said, "Well, I haven't washed my hair for four days. I'm feelin' out my character." Then, when we were actually shooting, we just put grease in her hair. We shot it out of sequence, so we had to go for varying degrees of grease. She was perfectly happy to have her hair be greasy. Fran is not a particularly vain person. I mean, I don't think she wanted to look horrible.

She doesn't look horrible. But she looks like a real middle-aged woman with really dirty hair. She doesn't look like a conventional actress in a conventional film. What's startling is that your hand-held cinematography [by Terry Stacey, who shot "American Splendor"] looks great and the production values are really high, but your actresses look like real people we might see at the supermarket. It's quietly subversive.

So you'd think if they were going to look that way, then the movie would be in this documentary-style, low-budget, rough kind of thing, right?

Right. You're matching syntax and content in a really unusual way.

You know, I wanted the movie to look good, like a beautiful Hollywood movie. But I'm so sick of seeing Hollywood actresses look like dolls. I want to see women who look normal, and who dress normally. Who wear clothes like working mothers wear. Yes, some working mothers wear high heels. They're out there. But I don't know any of them. If this is my opportunity to make a movie at this level, and I don't know if I'll ever have another one, then I want these people to look the way I want them to!

It's hard for the costume designers to get this. It's like they're not acquainted with that idea. I had to say to them, "No, I mean really dress down. Like, there are stains on the pants." Because that's real. Luckily, all these actresses were willing to wear what I told them to wear. Nobody ever said, "Well, this is not flattering." You know, they wore makeup. I wasn't outing anybody, or trying to make them look bad. I just wanted them to look accessible and realistic.

It seems to me like the real engine of this movie is the other women's attitudes toward Olivia, and the way that she poses a problem for them.

Is it? It's funny, I feel like that gets written about more than it actually is. I feel like she's a thread, but I've read about this, like it's about how everyone deals with their poor friend.

Because she sticks out. She's different, in terms of economic status and supposed lack of purpose. She's like the Cinderella character, almost literally. She winds up in a plausible, and surprising, romantic situation at the end of the movie. So if you're looking for a heroine, there she is. I thought the other women were angry at her, because her choices are so different from theirs? Franny sets her up with a guy whose only question about her is "How are her tits?"

I know. [Quoting Franny] "Up! They're really good! You'll love her tits! And she'll fuck you in a bed!" She's pimping out her friend! You're not the only one to say that these characters are angry at her. I was not conscious that they were. I think they pity her, to the point that Franny would set her up with an asshole. Because, you know, it's better to go out with an asshole than not go out with anybody. That's not very respectful to her friend, but I think that comes out of pity.

To be honest, I couldn't tell whether you really want us to see Franny and Matt as insanely happy as well as crazy rich, or whether it's just a front. Their relationship is kind of hard to read.

That would be a fault of mine. I wanted to portray them as dopily happy, almost to the level of a joke. Then once it's cast and I'm directing, they become people and it's no longer a joke. I meant them to be a sharp contrast; they are having the sex that the other people are afraid they're having, and they are having these moronic conversations because they don't have any worries. I meant for them to be happy. And no, it's not because of the money. They just happen to have the best relationship and happen to have the most money. That's how it shakes out sometimes, right? I believe in luck. They have really good luck, and some people don't.

Here's what made me stay up all night: Frances McDormand's encounter with middle-aged terror, when she realizes that she's no longer waiting for her wonderful life to begin. How does the line go?

Oh. "There's no more wondering what it's going to be like, my fabulous life." She's waiting to die. That's what she says in another scene. Yeah, if this is what middle age looks like, I can pretty much picture what old age is going to look like, right? She's facing her mortality, and that's what's ultimately depressing her. She can see dying, she can imagine being an old lady. She couldn't imagine middle age to look like this. Because when we're kids we think it's going to look much fancier, much shinier, than this.

Wow. What a note to end on.

Sorry to depress you.

No, you're not.

No, I'm not. I'm really glad. Secretly I like to disturb people.

"Friends With Money" opens April 7 in most major cities, with a wider release to follow.

"Free Zone": Israel's great Amos Gitai, crossing every border simultaneously
Amos Gitai, who is beyond any serious doubt the most important filmmaker in Israeli history, sits in an overstuffed armchair and talks me through the opening shots of his extraordinary new movie, "Free Zone." He's a solid, stolid man, who commands attention without moving or speaking loudly.

"We begin with the simplest of all things," he says. "A female figure, inside a car. [The woman is Natalie Portman, playing an American named Rebecca. She is crying.] We vaguely see the Wailing Wall behind her, if we know it's there. And she gives us, for more than seven minutes, the most spectacular performance in the most minimalist terms. How can a human face on a screen, the most basic thing, create so much serial variation of emotion? To charge things up a bit more, I put music over this -- the Jewish song of Passover. [It's the traditional song "Chad Gadya," performed by the Israeli pop star Chava Alberstein.] Maybe to make a proposition, or to question: Is the traumatic event not just intimate, but also coming from a larger scale?"

There is another woman in the car, an Israeli taxi driver named Hanna, played by Hanna Laslo (who won an acting prize at Cannes last year for this role). She too has good reason to be crying, although we don't know that yet. "We don't see her," Gitai continues. "We just hear her. Then we go to the next shot. First we see Hanna only in the mirror, and then, in the same shot, the border scene [as the two women cross from Israel into Jordan] will unveil the purpose of the journey."

This means, he goes on, that in the traditional organization of a film into several 16- or 17-minute reels, the entire first reel of "Free Zone" consists of two shots. The first lasts for seven minutes, the second about nine. So begins another of Gitai's dense and ambitious films, which have made him a celebrated figure in international cinema. In the last two or three years, Gitai's country has caught up to him. With the release of films like "Walk on Water," "Ushpizin," "Paradise Now" and "The Syrian Bride," which all resist simplistic political analysis, you could say that Gitai's version of cinema has also become Israel's.

"From the beginning, which is now 25 years ago," Gitai says, "my argument was that we should do strong cinema, because the story of Israel is a big drama. I think strong cultures can stomach strong works of art or literature or cinema."

Despite the fact that he's a decorated veteran who was nearly killed defending Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Gitai has treated his nation's self-mythologizing skeptically in both his fiction films and documentaries. Some Israelis didn't welcome this treatment, and he left the country for several years after making "Field Diary," his 1982 documentary about Israel's ill-fated invasion of Lebanon. But enough time has passed that he's become something of a father figure in Israeli film, even if, like his nation, he's still relatively young (he's 55, just two years younger than Israel itself). His films "Kedma," "Kadosh" and "Kippur" were international hits, and comprehensive sets of his early films, including the explosive documentaries, have just been released on DVD.

"When you do this kind of work, I suppose you're not doing it for the sake of being hugged and caressed by your countrymen," he says. "If it comes later, it's better. If you are hugged and caressed too early, then maybe your films become less interesting."

"Free Zone" takes Rebecca, the jilted American, and Hanna, the garrulous cab driver, on a mysterious journey across the Jordan River toward an economic "free zone" where Arabs, Israelis and others from all over the Middle East come together in a wide-open postmodern bazaar, where everything is for sale. Along the way they pick up a Palestinian woman named Leila (the great Israeli Arab actress Hiam Abbass), and their voyage, while never leaving reality behind, becomes increasingly symbolic.

Gitai's experimental technique in "Free Zone" is dizzying, sometimes thrilling. After we leave the stark simplicity of the first reel behind, he begins to superimpose layers of images and sound upon each other: We're in the car driving through Jordan, but we're also witnessing Rebecca breaking up with her fiancé and Hanna finding her husband grievously injured on their kibbutz by a Palestinian rocket attack and numerous other things besides. There are sometimes up to 12 fragments of narrative simultaneously in process, and once you give up trying to keep track of them all, and just process what you can, the effect is exhilarating.

"We are capable of having feelings or thoughts that are totally different but occur simultaneously," Gitai says. "When I was approaching this film, I thought to myself that cinema can give us a lot of technical ways of dealing with this, and then came the idea of these layers. We have a very selective, interesting mechanism to switch off or on different facets of our perception."

The idea, he explains, originated in his own narrow escape during the Yom Kippur war. "As you may know, I served in a helicopter," he says, "and during the conflict my helicopter was shot down by the Syrians. The copilot of the helicopter, who was roughly sitting the same distance from me as we are sitting, was decapitated by the missile. The second pilot managed to save us. He managed to fly three more minutes, with a dead pilot beside him and no steering, just holding on with his muscles, and crash-land on the Israeli side. I asked him: 'What did you hear?' He said, 'I didn't hear anything.'"

In the 30 years since then, the Middle East has changed a lot, perhaps both for better and for worse. But the young Amos Gitai who nearly died in that helicopter -- in a war that could well have led to Israel's destruction -- could scarcely have imagined making a film about an American, an Israeli and a Palestinian making an ambiguous journey into the future "in the same box," as he puts it. Nor could he have imagined filming most of it inside an Arab country, the first time any Israeli filmmaker has officially done so. Gitai says he considered "finding other ways" to shoot inside Jordan, but ultimately decided to write a letter to the Royal Film Commission. After some delay, he was invited to Amman to meet its director, who admired his work.

"I was very moved, because even with countries where Israel has peace agreements, like Jordan and Egypt, there are hardly any cultural relations. Maybe military, political and commercial relations, but no culture. The only thing I said to her was that I wouldn't shoot exotic scenery. No camels in the sunset. I wanted to show Jordan for what it is, highways, parking lots, you know -- not very different from Israel."

"Free Zone" opens April 7 in New York, with other cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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