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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 08:45 am

Can’t buy happiness

You’ll like these women, even if you’re tempted to slap ’em silly

Nicole Holofcener writes and directs intelligent films about modern women, and nothing spells “box-office poison” to Hollywood suits like movies of this sort. With any luck, Holofcener’s latest, Friends with Money, will raise the filmmaker’s profile. Portraits of complex women in film are hard to find, yet Holofcener’s work is rife with well-rounded, realistic characters, a breath of fresh air in the face of the stilted figures that often clutter the usual Tinseltown fodder. The four women at the center of Money couldn’t be more different. Franny (Joan Cusack) is the richest; with her husband, Matt (Greg Germann), she ponders what to do with large sums of their money, as well as how to fill her day. Christine (Catherine Keener) and her husband, David (Jason Isaacs), a successful screenwriting duo, are adding a second floor to their home. They have no clue that this project is negatively affecting their neighbors, just as they’re oblivious to the fact that their marriage is crumbling. Jane (Frances McDormand), a successful fashion designer, doesn’t have such domestic worries. Her husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), is a successful professional in his own right and as supportive as a spouse can be. However, it is odd that all of Jane’s friends think he’s gay, a fire that is fueled when he begins hanging out with another man (Ty Burrell), who just happens to be named Aaron, too. Then there’s poor Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), a former teacher who quit teaching at a high school in an upper-class neighborhood and now cleans houses for a living. Her friends are concerned — but not concerned enough to shell out some money to help. Holofcener effectively points out that the biggest problem each of these women face is overcoming feelings of isolation and insecurity, things their money only exacerbates. Franny is so out of the loop that she casually mentions that she and Matt donated $2 million to their daughter’s school and often wonder what it would be like to have to work. In a sense, Christine isn’t much better, continually failing to realize important details in her life, including recognizing that the small spats she has with her husband may be indicative of bigger problems. Meanwhile, Jane’s behavior becomes more and more erratic as Jane sinks into depression and experiences violent mood swings. These three are just as confused as Olivia, who, without the benefit of money as a buffer, finds herself sleepwalking through her life, suffering from a case of low self-esteem that she fully recognizes but doesn’t care to separate herself from. This may all sound like heavy lifting, but the cast and Holofcener’s breezy direction make the film not only insightful but also entertaining. A tone of irony throughout the allows us to look at these women’s situations with a degree of compassion, even though there are times when we want to stand up and slap them as well.

Also in theaters this week. . .

American Dreamz [PG-13] A feisty Midwestern girl and a show-tune-singing Orange County guy face each other in a talent show championship. When the president of the United States wants in on the action, things get ugly. ShowPlace East
The Benchwarmers [PG-13] A trio of middle-aged has-beens forms a baseball team to compete against area Little League teams in a feeble attempt to gain some dignity. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Ice Age: The Meltdown [PG] The Ice Age is officially over and Diego, Manny and Sid must alert the others before the ice melts and the valley is destroyed. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East, Route 66 Drive-In
Inside Man [R] Hostage negotiator Keith Frazier finds himself in a match of wits with a bank robber, but quickly realizes the heist isn’t exactly what it seems to be. Directed by Spike Lee. ShowPlace West
Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector [PG-13] Larry, a jovial health inspector, spends his days checking hole-in-the-wall diners for code violations — that is, until he gets a new partner and a high-profile food poisoning case at a series of upscale eateries. ShowPlace East
Lucky Number Slevin [R] Slevin gets caught in Mafia crossfire when two dangerous crime bosses, the Boss and the Rabbi, mistake his identity. Lucky he is not. ShowPlace West
The Sentinel [PG-13] Special Agent Pete Garrison is determined to nail a traitor before the president of the United States gets hit. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Silent Hill [R] On a road trip to help save her ailing daughter, Rose Da Silva stops in Silent Hill, a desolate town with an evil presence. Rose’s daughter goes missing, but in Silent Hill things aren’t always as they seem. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
Take the Lead [PG-13] Ballroom dancer Pierre Dulane takes on a bunch of New York City school kids, and when the footwork of ballroom and hip-hop collide, a new style is born. ShowPlace West
Thank You For Smoking [R] The CEO of a major tobacco company, Nick Naylor, tries to teach his son some ethical lessons and maintain his big business earnings from selling smokes. ShowPlace West
The Wild [G] A young lion departs from New York Zoo for the vast lands of Africa leaving behind a few friends who are determined to get him back. ShowPlace West, ShowPlace East
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