Money Changes Everything

Illustration by Sean McCabePhoto: Mark Lipson/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In her second feature, Lovely and Amazing, and her latest, Friends With Money, the writer and director Nicole Holofcener circles in on problems that tend to scare off mainstream American filmmakers—problems often too traumatic even to acknowledge. Women’s obsession with—and estrangement from—their own bodies, for instance. Or, in Friends With Money, what happens in an intensely materialistic culture when longtime gal pals find themselves in vastly different economic brackets.

Holofcener juggles four female friends (three in couples plus a stray): one couple, Franny and Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann), superrich and with nary a care; the second, Jane and Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney), prosperous but with unspoken sexual tensions; and the third, Christine and David (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs), well-off but striving, and adding a story to their house as if to compensate for a marriage that’s dead and buried. The stray is Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), a near-penniless ex-teacher who is reduced to cadging free cosmetic samples from department stores. (What an interesting subtext there must have been on the set, since Aniston probably has more money than all the other actors combined.) The couples discuss one another in car rides home: Christine thinks the effeminate clotheshorse Aaron is gay, gay, gay. Jane reports that David and Christine haven’t had sex in a year. Franny wants to fix up Olivia—and does, with her brazenly sexist fitness instructor (Scott Caan). But what aimless Olivia really needs is a nice guy with money.

It’s a plus and a minus in her films that Holofcener never explicitly Calls the Question. She spares you ham-handed revelatory monologues and rap sessions—as in, say, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which stops for a female colloquium on interracial dating. The downside is that Friends With Money doesn’t quite snap into focus. It just floats along—an agreeable comedy of manners with actors you like to hang out with.

Aniston has always been a nonstarter on the big screen, but her rather mushy passivity works well for Olivia—in part because, as in Friends, she has a histrionic ensemble to take the weight off her. The heart of all of Holofcener’s movies is Keener, whose persona strikes the perfect balance between confidence and vulnerability: She’s warily accommodating but too well defended (and quick-witted, and prickly) to surrender to the male will. McDormand’s Jane is this film’s injustice collector—a successful fashion designer who has thrown in the towel on her own appearance and sees signs everywhere of the world’s indifference. And if Franny seems a bit of a drip (money has fuzzed her head), Cusack makes her ether ethereally funny.

Holofcener builds scenes around motifs that resonate marvelously, like the screenplay on which Christine and David collaborate, in which his male and her female character turn out to be in different movies. Only the most exacting alpha-male would complain that Friends With Money doesn’t jell. Warm, female-centric, socially conscious comedies with juicy parts—characters you want to talk about—for fortysomething actresses don’t grow on Hollywood palm trees.

On the subject of women and body image … The two questions I get asked about Basic Instinct 2 are “How does she look?” and “Does she show her p—- again?” Let’s take them in reverse order: No—you glimpse the forest but not the trees. As for how she looks, that’s a tricky one. Great, super. Sharon Stone is still babelicious, and if I see that in an ad, I’m coming for someone with an ice pick. But Stone at 48 has a hard act to follow—i.e., Stone at 34. Given that Basic Instinct 2 is stupefyingly lackluster, there’s little left to think about besides the way of all flesh.

Because flesh—Stone’s—was essential to Basic Instinct. She was creamy all over. The audience’s first full glimpse of her Catherine Tramell is breathtaking. Sitting on a terrace overlooking the wild Pacific breakers, she hears her name uttered by a detective (Michael Douglas) and gives a tiny laugh, as if amused even to inhabit the same sphere as this hapless mortal. Her voice is velvety solicitous but edged with mockery: She knows she can control his eyes, his emotions, his organs. It’s no wonder that on the Basic Instinct DVD, Camille Paglia falls all over herself to proclaim Catherine not just a femme fatale but a “pagan goddess.” As written with entertaining shamelessness by Joe Eszterhas and directed in a gorgeously overripe style by Paul Verhoeven, Basic Instinct is peerless swank-noir.

Why the makers of this sequel chose to set it in an antiseptic, blue-gray London is a mystery more engaging than the picture’s. Another boner—or, should I say, de-boner—was choosing as director Michael Caton-Jones, who couldn’t even make the Profumo sex scandal of Scandal sexy. After a ludicrous but wild opening—camp at 110 miles per hour—in which Catherine slays her latest lover by driving his car off a bridge while simultaneously pleasuring herself, Basic Instinct 2 settles into a torpid Freudian talkfest, with a British shrink (David Morrissey) taking far too long to succumb to his basic instincts, which in this case include stupidity. The film is a joke on Freud played too slowly—and besides, Eszterhas’s original hurtled past Freud and into Camille-Paglianism in its first fifteen minutes.

I don’t remember Stone pulling faces in the first film, or dropping her G’s and slinging her lines like the spawn of Mae West and Clint Eastwood. The only person who’ll enjoy this travesty is the exiled Eszterhas, who’ll no doubt be pleasuring himself as his pagan goddess thuds to earth.

The making of Basic Instinct 2 inspired nearly as much controversy as Sharon Stone’s crotch-baring turn in the original. After she signed on for a reported salary of $14 million (plus a slew of perks, including a two-bedroom presidential suite during filming), MGM pulled the plug—a decision the studio attributed to its difficulty in finding a male lead—which led to a headline-grabbing lawsuit brought by Stone in which she demanded the producers pay her $100 million in damages. Following a lengthy trial, the two parties eventually settled, but only when the producers agreed to make the movie—thus ensuring Stone would get her original salary.

Friends With Money
Directed by Nicole Holofcener. Sony Pictures Classics. R.

Basic Instinct 2
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones. MGM. R.


Money Changes Everything