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The Good Life? 

"Friends With Money" investigates an insular set of Los Angelenos.

Though it suffers slightly from a lackluster final act and an inability to see outside the confines of the community it investigates, "Friends With Money" handles these discussions with an intelligence and honesty — without trying to teach us anything — that's rare in today's cinema.

The three couples we meet don't live in the same locale. But the locales they call home (and, perhaps more important, their ability to pay for them) are very similar. The strongest connection among them is their status as heirs to success and comfort. Of the couples there's Christine and Patrick (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs), husband and wife united in screenwriting and the building of an unsightly addition to their home; Jane and Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney), both successful designers; and Franny and Matt (Joan Cusack and Bob Stephenson), who are simply rich. Only Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) is alone, fallen by the wayside on the road to the pleasures expected of her. A former schoolteacher, she's now a maid, lacking even a boyfriend for male companionship and, in one of the movie's few but obvious examples of overdoing it, a depressed pot-smoker as well.

Christine and Patrick are the most hardened yuppies of the bunch, cold and unkind even to each other, realizing perhaps that the one-upmanship that made things so hot in the beginning has cooled to an icy and unpleasant disrespect. As we go down the line, the portraits become less clear, though not necessarily less interesting. Jane and Aaron seem to have closeted marital problems as well, but Aaron, wiser if not older than the rest of the group, appears emotionally equipped to handle success and his wife's worsening anger. The happiest, wealthiest couple, Franny and Matt, also happen to be the least interesting. They give away millions to charities and have the best sex of the group (we are told via the griping of the others), but they are also the hardest to fathom. Partly this is a symptom of the movie's overall forgetfulness, but it also illustrates the cool, facile natures of those who get on well with each other. Perhaps, screenwriter and director Nicole Holofcener is telling us, indifference can be added to ignorance as to what constitutes bliss.

The most difficult character to like is Olivia. The first thing wrong with her is Aniston, who has tried on just about every type of movie role and always ends up looking like a kid playing in grown-up clothes. To make matters worse, her character is a mere contrivance set against real people, something the movie mostly avoids (an avoidance that's admirable, given the dangers in a topic like this). Franny at one point asks her husband how they've stayed friends with her given the social gulf that separates them. Good question. Olivia is an unconvincing tool, an attempt to show the difference between having money and not having it, something the movie takes stabs at but never spears.

Just what is that difference? No matter how much you might enjoy "Friends With Money," it's doubtful you'll feel satisfied on that subject. The movie is witty and irreverent, but it isn't satire. It doesn't skewer its subjects as much as scold them; it has the appearance of being made by someone simply telling us how it is on the inside. Maybe that's why it leaves so many loose strands dangling and ties too neatly the points it does conclude. There are certainly people in the City of Angels who will see themselves in "Friends With Money." It will likely be an enjoyable movie for them, too. But it would have been a better one if it had made them more uncomfortable. (R) 88 min. *** S

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