''Friends With Money" is another finely etched, intelligently acted social comedy from Nicole Holofcener, whose first two features were ''Walking and Talking" and ''Lovely & Amazing." Holofcener has made only two movies in the 10 years since her first, and I wish she worked more. She's one of America's most casually perceptive filmmakers, and her movies are smart and true about the ways people treat one another and themselves.
There is a lot of modern American life in her movies, too, from popular culture of the moment to relationship trends, and it gives the films the kind of freshness that, nowadays, you really only find on very good television shows. Holofcener writes as well as Albert Brooks at his best, and her finesse with actors is as assured as James L. Brooks's on his TV and film projects from 20 and 30 years ago.
In fact, the four women in ''Friends With Money" could be characters on a sitcom. Holofcener's script uses familiar TV geometry that episodically intertwines the four women's lives in order to dramatize the extremely real reasons people come together and grow apart. Here, status is the lure and the repellent. The film is set in Los Angeles and focuses on three well-off women -- Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, and Joan Cusack -- their husbands, and their unmarried pothead friend, Olivia, whom Jennifer Aniston plays in the most relaxed movie performance of her life.
Olivia is an occupational drifter. She quit her job as a teacher at a posh prep school (the kids made fun of how rich she wasn't) and now she cleans houses and wanders into the city's department stores for free beauty cream, samples being a nifty motif throughout the film.
Her friends pity her, but gently. In one early scene, the four of them get together for dinner, with their husbands, and the subject of philanthropy comes up. All the couples give money away. (A banquet to fight Lou Gehrig's disease is in the offing.) But Franny and Matt (Cusack and Greg Germann), being the wealthiest of the group, just donated $2 million dollars to a school, and Jane (McDormand), a caustic fashion designer, is shocked. Why not give it to Olivia -- who's mortified by the idea?
This conversation is funny and strange at the same time. These are characters talking explicitly about money in a way people in movies never do. It also establishes very well the tricky tone Holofcener plans to maintain throughout: a fascination with how people behave that never turns into an indictment of their behavior. Accordingly, the film walks a line between discretion and brutal truth.
In ''Friends With Money," wealth is a matter of fact not preoccupation, even if, like race or beauty, it's an unreliable shortcut to explain somebody. Are Franny and Matt happy because they have more money than everybody else? Is Olivia less happy because she has none? Success is a smoke screen, too. Christine (Keener) and David (Jason Isaacs) are screenwriting partners who've decided to build another story on their house, without even realizing that their marriage is collapsing and their neighbors hate them.
Another filmmaker might have taken a page from, say, Luis Buñuel's book and given us a scathing bourgeois satire. But the film's accomplishment is that it's not about class as much as it's about character in the context of class, in much the same way that Agnes Jaoui's ''The Taste of Others" and ''Look at Me" were. The movie isn't full of toothsome yuppie pornography. There aren't a lot of shots of things. The houses are nice, but the folks living in them are the point.
Out of pity, Franny sets up Olivia with her personal trainer (Scott Caan), who accompanies her on cleaning jobs, then asks for a cut. Because she doesn't even know what she's worth, she pays him. The mad, hurt, and confused look on Aniston's face the second time it happens is one for the Blindsided Date Hall of Fame. The film's most intriguing character is Jane's English husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), a clotheshorse whom everyone thinks is gay. Really, his good taste and sensitivity are just extremely incriminating, according to our cynical, small-minded world.
The characters in ''Friends With Money" are so fully developed that they seem to take on lives of their own. If there's a problem with this naturalist approach, it's that many of these people spend the film looking inward. When Christine literally sees her life from a neighbor's window, you realize the movie could use more of that kind of revelation. This didn't seem true about Holofcener's other two movies, which, more than ''Friends With Money," seemed plugged into a relatable world bigger than the cities they were set in.
You're also worried about the depth of the bond between the women. When it's clear, for instance, that the increasingly hostile Jane is losing her mind, why does no one call her on it? Maybe it's easier to ''fight" to cure ALS than your friends.
And are we really to believe that Aniston is out of shape with that body tone? If marijuana will do that, I might have to cancel my gym membership. Still, my nitpicking is otherwise a testament to Holofcener's uncommon keenness as a writer, director, and lover of people. I complain because I care.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.