The first press screening of the Sundance Film Festival had all the things veterans have come to expect: Parka-clad professional film mavens shuffling in, sharing questions about buzz, commiserating about travel tales from hell, complaining about acclimating to the 10,060 ft. elevation of Park City and the attendant headaches it brings – and, ultimately, curious about if Friends with Money, Nicole Holofcener's first film since Lovely and Amazing, was going to be any good – or overshadowed by the public persona and problems of star Jennifer Aniston.
But Friends with Money turned out to be a good choice to open Sundance – not because it's revolutionary, but because it isn't: It was what many have come, for good and for ill, to expect from "independent" film: A well-made drama-comedy with several indie actors (Catharine Keener, Frances McDormand) doing the kind of work we've come to rely on them for, and several non-indie actors (Aniston, Jason Isaacs) stretching just enough to show they're not just who they seem to be. Friends with Money revolves around four lifelong friends – Aniston, Keener, McDormand and Joan Cusack – and their complex relationships and intertwinings, especially as some of them have good fortune and others do not. Or, put more bluntly: As the film opens, Keener and her husband Isaacs are approving plans for re-building their own house; Aniston is cleaning other people's houses. … Or, as McDormand puts it, speaking of Aniston's Olivia: "She's the only one of our friends who's not married; she's a pothead; she's a maid."
Writer-director Holofcener has an excellent ear for the way married couples talk to each other; more tellingly, she has an excellent ear for how married couples don't talk to each other. Much as in Lovely and Amazing, the characters here are just artificially clever enough to create a convincing simulation of reality, and we get a quick sense of why these people are who they are that doesn't linger on backstory or overly-elaborate explanations. The dialogue seems arch, but never fake, and Holofcener puts enough zing in the script to make sure that her comedy about depressed people is never itself depressed. None of the assembled press walked out of Friends with Money amazed; no one wandered away disgusted (and look for Karina Longworth's longer review of the film later on Cinematical). It may not have been the most startling choice to open the festival, but it did set off on the right foot, skilfully walking the precarious line between big Hollywood and over 30 years of indie tradition as onlookers waited for a slip that never quite came.
Others on Friends with Money: Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter thought it "a pitch-perfect ensemble comedy," while Variety's Todd McCarthy went for the ever-reliable food metaphor, calling it "an agreeable grazing menu of smart dialogue, wry observational humor and bright characterizations [that]...doesn't end up feeling like a full meal."