Money changes everything, so it's apt that Sundance, the most renowned and successful film festival in America open with "Friends with Money," Nicole Holofcener's charmingly observant but ultimately disappointing look into the lives of four Los Angeles women and their struggles with affluence. Watching their concerns and foibles relating to charity donations or second-floor additions to their house is like pitying an heiress for getting a paper cut from writing a check - you feel bad, but not terribly so. The same feels true of the festival, of course, which ardently claims to stick up for independent film but happily makes room for premieres of studio-financed specialty product. It's an old argument, but one that seems oddly mirrored in Holofcener's light drama: an indie sensibility softened by financial stability.
That's not to say that a small-budgeted movie about wealth is automatically disqualified from being good - but there's something else at play. Ultimately the movie wants to address the unease that can come from complacency, the restlessness and resentment that materialism can instill in loving relationships. Yet the script doesn't delve deeply enough into these issues, and instead becomes a superficial look at how superficial people let money cloud their priorities. The roster of A-list actresses - including indie queens Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand - are a pleasure to watch. But they still can't inject the authenticity needed to iron over the film's many contrivances (among them a freak-out by McDormand's character in an Old Navy store that ends in a broken nose).
Although the film interweaves four different storylines, the most prominent involves Jennifer Aniston as a former private school teacher in a funk who cleans houses for a meager wage. Her character arc, though amusingly detailed, fizzles by the end, and leaves the film with its ultimately contradictory message: that sometimes money actually does buy happiness.
From "Walking and Talking" to "Lovely and Amazing," Holofcener has remained an astute observer of social behavior, adeptly exposing relationship fractures in short, expertly rendered dialogue and vivid performances. What hasn't evolved in her work, though, is an overall sense of catharsis that fuses her multicharacter studies into a resonant statement about human nature.
Money also factors into another soft portrait of personal fortune. Stewart Copeland's affectionate documentary, "Everybody Stares: The Police Inside Out" is a home-movie assemblage of the pop group's ascension from obscurity to global superstardom - as seen through the lens of Copeland's own super-8 camera. Frustratingly slight in execution and very short on revelations about the band's personal dynamics or working style, "Everybody Stares" becomes a strangely amusing demonstration of how banal home movies can really be - even when they're taken by a rock star.
The footage does capture the band members as they go from sweetly ambitious to world-weary, and their transformation into jaded icons is an inevitable, if slender, throughline. What's missing is any sense of shaping to the material to bring out the essential truths that might exist. One wonders what a more resourceful director such as Werner Herzog might unearth from the psychological and emotional intensity that rarely but undeniably bubbles to the surface in some of the film's better moments.
Despite Copeland's happily obtuse narration, the movie never really feels like it has any kind of cinematic voice, and becomes an unnecessary remembrance from a man who apparently wanted to create a memento of his lucrative rise to fame. There are a few very precious moments - watching Sting and Andy Summers riff out the signature chords of "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" seeing them record seminal tracks from Ghost in the Machine - but they generate the kind of thrill reserved mainly for rock journalists, music scholars and diehard fans.
Modest productions and subject matter tend to be the norm for the dramatic competition, where unknown filmmakers and no-name talent are the rule more than the exception. Most winning of these so far is "Somebodies," the feature debut of writer-director Hadjii, who also stars in the story of a black slacker college student in Georgia distracted from his future by a steady stream of liquor, sex and dulled ambition. Uneven, episodic and sometimes too broad in its caricatures, the film still bursts with a comic energy that produces surprising guffaws in unexpected ways. The ensemble cast brings a vibrancy to even the most mundane moments, and keeps together a thin story that might otherwise have fallen apart under less enthusiastic performances. While the film is far from perfect, and very much a diamond in the rough, the experience of watching Hadjii's world was, in a word, rich.