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Friends With Issues 

A whole lot of people are thrown our way at the start of this contemporary look at the importance of friendship and about coping with other people and the utter craziness of life. But writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing) has a firm grasp on every facet of the film, and her characters are so well drawn, it's easy to get to know each of them right away.

Of course, it helps that every actor here has a total understanding of his or her character. We're introduced to the film's four women -- Franny, Christine, Jane (all well off) and Olivia (just eking by as a housecleaner) -- at a dinner party where they chatter away about how lucky they are to have each other as friends. The three husbands at the dinner (Olivia doesn't have one) seem insignificant in the scheme of things.

But don't think this is a "chick flick." It's a study of the human condition -- even if the humans here happen to live in Los Angeles -- and it's thoughtful, insightful and loaded with surprises for a variety of adult audiences.

The storytelling part of it focuses on poor, frustrated Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who can't catch a break involving money or love. With a teaching career as well as a string of bad romances behind her, she tries yet another blind date, this one with Mike (Scott Caan) who turns out to be the biggest jerk yet. Franny (Joan Cusack), who can't seem to write enough big checks to enough charities, feels bad for her. Christine (Catherine Keener) is too wrapped up in fighting with her loutish and selfish writing-partner husband David (Jason Isaacs) to think about Olivia. Jane (Frances McDormand, in one of her juiciest roles yet), reminiscent of Woody Allen lamenting about our expanding universe, has fallen into a deep funk and developed both road rage and department store rage. In her opinion, nobody has problems as big as hers.

There's actually a lot of unhappiness -- and in one case, desperation -- on display as the cameras jump around among the private lives and the regular get-togethers of these folks. There's no doubt that the women love each other and really do cherish their friendship. But almost every character in the film is on some kind of emotional roller coaster ride -- some of them just have much steeper hills. Despite that, there are also plentiful giggle-inducing moments spread throughout the film, just about all of them seamlessly blending in.

Some of the humor revolves around Olivia's penchant for smoking pot, some comes directly from Jane's recent changeover from happy, successful businesswoman to foul-mouthed shrew. A big dose of it comes from Holofcener's regular use of product placement, although a number of the laughs directed at Lancome and Chanel are likely not anything that those companies are going to be thrilled about.

One of the film's oddest components is the way it looks at the men in the lives of these women. Isaacs' David keeps getting crueler. Franny's husband Matt (Greg Germann) is the blandest of the bunch but is the one who appears to be most joyous about spending money -- the script hints that this is some kind of male-female role reversal. And humor is again right at the fore with a long-running gag about the possibility that Jane's laid-back and gentle British husband, Aaron (Simon McBurney), might be gay. Holofcener keeps us guessing about this, and leaves Aaron blissfully unaware of the talk, but never holds back on a regular supply of gay men making advances on him. It's a near-perfect piece of plotting that never gets tired.

It ends up being easy to delineate which of the main characters are strong, sympathetic, stupid or just plain rotten. But there are some equally interesting secondary characters who pop in and out of the storylines and help add to the film's sparkling sense of surprise. Along the way, the mood of the piece is greatly aided by a usually relaxed jazzy-poppy soundtrack -- and a couple of great Rickie Lee Jones tunes.

But the highlight comes when one person, obviously braver than anyone else in the film, steps forward and admits, "I guess I have some issues." It's delivered so honestly, it feels, well, refreshing. It's too bad some of the other Friends don't have the guts to say the same thing.

Friends With Money; Rated R; Directed by Nicole Holofcener; Starring Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Jennifer Aniston.

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