Olivia (Jennifer Anniston) is part of a group of four women friends who're all well off, except for her. Having fled from a school teaching job, she now cleans people's houses. She smokes some pot, pines for a married man she had a fling with, dates a personal trainer who's a dick; in the end, she winds up with a customer who's a slob but turns out to be nice, and quite rich. Olivia's three friends are Jane, Christine, and Franny. Jane (Frances McDormand) is a successful but very feisty and angry clothing designer, with a gay-seeming husband named Aaron (Simon McBurney) who attracts gay, and gay-seeming men. Jane's Aaron finds another Aaron (Ty Burrell), equally gay-seeming, and they have a sort of date, but this is to tease us or educate us about men: both Aarons are happily married, and their friendship leads to dinners for four, and that's that. Christine (Caroline Keener) writes scripts, and has nasty verbal fights, with her husband David (Jason Isaacs): her marriage is crumbling while the couple build a second floor on their house that will ruin the view for their neighbors. When Christine realizes this, and that her husband knew it, she dumps him. Franny (Joan Cusack) is very rich, just raises her kids with full time help, and is perfectly happy with her husband Matt (Greg Germann), her two children, and the world.
There are several themes here: forty-something women's crises (Jane, Christine); a single woman's aimlessness and passivity (Olivia); men who either seem gay, or are creeps, like Franny's personal trainer Mike (Scott Caan), whom she sets up with Olivia, and who is rude and exploitive toward Olivia; Christine's husband, who can't be nice to Christine -- though she can't be nice to him, either. And money. It's always there as an issue.
A pivot point is the pet fiction in American social comedy that friends stay together even when their fortunes come to vary widely. To distinguish her people from each other, Holofcener resorts to something like the eighteenth-century comedy of humors, where a character is dominated by a single trait or quirk: Olivia is obsessed with skin lotions and will even steal to get them; Jane picks fights with strangers and won't wash her hair; Christine is always hurting herself by accident. Franny's rich husband is almost invisible, except to insist on spending money, and he is the best man. He isn't possibly gay either.
Besides the married-men-who-seem-gay theme, there's a sequence when Olivia allows the boorish personal trainer to accompany her on her housecleaning jobs, where he lounges around, and then demands from her, and gets, a cut of her pay. Finally he gives her a kinky maid's uniform and orders her around in it on a job, a prelude to sex. Only at the end of this episode when she follows him and sees he's dating somebody else in the evenings, does Olivia decide to stop seeing this creep.
What is one to make of such a movie? It's an opportunity for some amusing character acting, and McDormand and Cusack and McBurney stand out. Anniston is well cast as the slightly depressed, rudderless but still independent female, who somehow carries herself well enough to be accepted by her well-off comrades -- though Franny and her husband agree that if she met Olivia now, she might not make the grade.
The rambling incidents and scattered emotions are united at the end by a conventional comedy device, a final public event that brings the main characters together, in this case a charity dinner for people with Lou Gehrig's disease. Franny and her husband have bought a table and Jane provides the women with dresses from her collection. Jane washes her hair for the occasion. Christine comes without her husband because they're breaking up. Having gotten rid of the unpleasant personal trainer, Olivia comes with the slob customer, and his revelation afterward in the car and in bed that sloppy personal habits and "problems" aside, he is so rich he need not work, promises a solution to her problem: she, like her friends, will have money. But this is decentralized -- really center-less -- and clearly TV-influenced plotting. In traditional drama, the characters' lives would dovetail neatly in the end; in farce, the couples would recombine in amusing ways. Instead here, the characters have just been moved around a little, like checkers on a board in a game that ends in a draw. The episodes have the staccato separations that remain in cable television dramas even when there are no advertisements to interrupt them.
There are some interesting -- and repellent -- examples of bad behavior: the self-centered personal trainer; Jane's rude aggressions in public; Christine's and her husband's mean slurs during their fights. But unlike Neil LaBute, Holofcener doesn't show how moral failures or failures of will ruin relations between the sexes. She likes to play with our expectations. The slob customer is jobless, and he bargains Olivia down for the cleaning from $100 to $65, and then turns out be rich. The Aarons make us think Jane's husband really will turn out to be gay -- he tells her in bed, "You're my best friend." But in the end both the gay theme and the money theme seem like red herrings. Are the gay-seeming men a critique of machismo? Is money a source of happiness when there's enough of it? This movies hasn't got answers. But what I'm wondering is whether it has any questions. TV writing can be very good, as Sex and the City and Six Feet Under (two Holofcender has written for), Oz, The Sopranos, and various other programs show. But it doesn't always translate well into the single vessel of a movie.
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