Make the trip to Destinta and see “Friends with Money.” A witty and wise study of friendship and class in elite Los Angeles, this bittersweet new comedy starring Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand is simply terrific. As the artery-clogging onslaught of greasy summer blockbusters grows closer by the day, this perfectly tossed salad of a movie, light yet surprisingly filling, provides a refreshing antithesis. It also provides the most intriguingly implicit commentary on the state of women in Hollywood in some time.

If “Friends with Money” existed within a social vacuum, it would still be worth seeing for its mercurial mix of satiric detail, evocative grace notes, and note-perfect performances by four talented and graceful actresses. But, in our paparazzi-saturated culture, celebrity persona inevitably seeps into both casting choices and audience reactions. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s decision to cast Aniston as a pot-smoking, rudderless maid and Cusack, McDormand, and Keener as her wealthy and successful friends succeeds within the context of her film due to the vanity-free performances she gets from her quartet of actresses. Her skill as a chronicler of love, sex, aging, and other mid-life adventures amongst women over thirty-five detaches the audience from reality and allows us to savor the jewel-like moments of humor and heartbreak.

View the film outside of this context and the ironies are hard to deny. In reality, Jennifer Aniston’s angular face will be plastered on more magazines this year than Cusack, McDormand, and Keener’s will in a decade. In reality, the former “Friends” star has had her love life dissected for the last year and a half by a voracious tabloid machine; no one seems to be checking up on McDormand’s marriage to Joel Coen with any degree of frequency. To see Aniston scrubbing toilets while Cusack shops for $80 children’s sneakers and Keener oversees an addition on her suburban palace is to acknowledge that Aniston is the real Hollywood royalty, while the other three are beloved “character actresses.” In mainstream Hollywood, McDormand plays the mom, not the romantic lead. Keener supplies the wiseacre jokes, not the second half of a romantic duo (“The 40 Year Old Virgin” notwithstanding). Cusack is the ditz, not the heroine. “Character actresses” (read: not a size 0) of “a certain age” (read: over 40) don’t get the leads; they’re too “quirky.”

Aniston, bless her heart, does not fit the vacuous bimbo-babe model that acts as the Hollywood baseline. Taking roles like films like “Friends with Money” and Miguel Artera’s “The Good Girl” reflects a sincere, straining desire to be remembered as more than just Rachel Green, a longing so palpable it’s almost touching. And here, freed from both sitcom shtick and the self-consciously glum aimlessness of “The Good Girl”, she gives a sweet and salty performance of admirable understatement. That being said, she is undeniably buoyed by her co-stars, so often forgotten by the Hollywood mainstream for the mistake of aging gracefully rather than Botox-ing themselves into frozen-faced oblivion. Aniston’s character, Olivia, may be cleaning up the stains here. Audience members can’t help but be aware, however, that Jennifer Aniston, burgeoning movie star and formerly married to one-half of Brangelina, will be seen not two months later in “The Break-Up”, a potential mainstream smash. And where will Cusack (43) or Keener (46) or McDormand (48) be? Working, no doubt; but with little hope of getting the kind of lead roles in mainstream Hollywood films that Aniston (37) has at her finger tips.

There are no easy solutions to the frustrating double standards currently at work in Hollywood. Look no further than the continual casting of such graying former heartthrobs as Richard Gere in romantic leads for proof. However, there is hope to be taken from films like “Friends with Money”, and particularly from directors like Nicole Holofcener. Given the aforementioned outside perspective audiences bring into her film, Holofcener (herself in her mid 40s) could have taken the opportunity to make a loud and obvious statement about gender inequality in the film world. Instead, she celebrates all the women on screen, with a generous and watchful eye whose blunt honesty emanates from a place of intelligent warmth. “Friends with Money” has very little in the way of plot momentum; Roger Ebert, in a recent two-star review, deemed the film “more of an idea than a story.” Yet it’s this very shapelessness that allows the audience to bask in the glow of Holofcener’s multi-faceted on-screen creations, women of substance and shortfalls and strength. Whatever they’re standing in the off-screen world, all four actresses in “Friends with Money” are on equal creative footing.

This personal, candid, and unapologetically feminine cinematic perspective of character over plot mechanics, minor-key reflection over earth-shattering revelation, may just be the best way to combat the gender and age bias at work in mainstream filmmaking. Holofcener’s work, unfortunately, reaches a limited number of people. In the wake of indie hit “Lost in Translation”, though, Sofia Coppola seems primed to expose a larger audience to her poetic, free-flowing vision of lost souls adrift in a world both bewildering and exhilarating. Her “Marie Antoinette” plays in competition at Cannes next month and opens in October. And Catherine Hardwicke, who exploded out of the gate in 2003 with her scalding teen-girl drama “Thirteen”, returns this December with “Nativity”, a picture of the life of the Virgin Mary before Jesus. And anyone who attempts to peg her, or any of these directors, as “for chicks only” needs only to see Hardwicke’s “Lords of Dogtown”, an underrated film that shows male skateboarders as fractious and insecure as any stereotypical “mean girl” clique.

In a perfect world, one could watch a film like “Friends with Money” and not associate casting with the hypocrisy of the current Hollywood system, and directors like Holofcener may yet change this. Until that day comes, however, the sight of Jennifer Aniston in a maid’s outfit and Frances McDormand in designer gowns cannot help but make you think: in Hollywood’s eyes, the roles are reversed.

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