Let us first do away with the term “chick flick.” Unless we are going to institute the term “dick flick” for every male-driven film that treats women as caricature—that would be most films, then—let us read no more of Peter Travers’ “chick flick hell.” The whole world is dick flick hell, dude. Find a new flippant dismissal.
Because to seriously consider Nicole Holofcener as a filmmaker—of course you should—you must accept two things and move on: She is a woman, and she writes and directs movies about women. She’s made three of them in the past decade: 1996’s Walking and Talking, 2001’s Lovely & Amazing, and this week’s terrific Friends with Money (which she totally could have called Friends and Money, without diluting the reference, to keep the titular streak going). She uses them to smartly, sassily, squirmily pry into some universal deep fears: loneliness, body image, class struggle, success. They are heavy on character, light on plot. They are small—low budgets, no special effects or action sequences, sometimes digital. Catherine Keener stars in all of them (Best. Muse. Ever.). Lots of other women star in them too: Holofcener’s roster includes Anne Heche, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand and Jennifer Aniston.
All of this has earned her a rep as the chick-flick doyenne of independent cinema, an indie Nora Ephron (this was once a compliment—Ephron used to be great). It’s not a fair assessment.
Holofcener’s movies are not romantic comedies. They’re not about girl snagging boy and Hollywood happy endings. In fact, all three films end much the way they begin, with their protagonists floundering, uncertain of what they want. They do not fade to black with every tattered end tied up into a cute bow. They are contemporary, set in major cities—Walking in New York, the others in LA—and so the careers held by the characters are of the dream factory variety (actor, screenwriter, designer) and typical of the real world (photo lab developer, video store clerk, house cleaner).
The LA-bred 46-year-old mother of twin boys writes what she knows: Walking is about a pair of best friends in their late 20s and how their relationship is altered by the wedding of one; Lovely follows three generations of women—at once, Holofcener doesn’t go for flashbacks or old lady makeup—dealing with the complexities of self-image; Friends looks at middle-aged have-nots and have-too-muches and whether financial security is the key to a satisfying life.
Her characters, particularly the ones Keener plays, are not always likeable. It’s a hallmark of her scripts: the self-absorbed asshole, an unconventional protagonist played by unconventional leads. She often puts overtly revealing, honest, horrible words into their mouths. She doesn’t give them slangy, trendy dialogue to say, which is what makes her movies difficult to take: they’re boiled down to the bones, shining the world’s brightest light on every insecurity you could name, every character brutally honest, if not about themselves than at least about those around them, and so people are constantly saying what they feel. It’s often funny and Holofcener never lets the darker moments overshadow the movie, but this complexity is frequently overlooked upon first, and usually last, pass.
Her films boast rewards upon rewatching. Keener is the most obvious—her best roles have come from Holofcener’s mind. The filmmaker is not afraid to let her camera linger a beat longer than necessary, as she does frequently in Friends with Money, staying close to her stellar actors, watching their emotions settle, letting the moments sink in. She dresses her characters the way they would dress in real life, in Levi’s and threadbare cotton, sensible shoes and baseball hats. She tries to use actresses who haven’t yet fucked with their bodies, the theme of Lovely and Amazing. And she knows when her stories, plotless as they are, should end: each of her movies clocks in around 90 minutes.
Nicole Holofcener is a humanist. When people say, “It’s a movie about real life,” they’re talking about movies like hers. She’s not the flashiest or the most prolific or very earnest or easily marketable (“human flick,” anyone?), but she’s worth more of your time than almost any other dick out there.
Friends with Money opens Friday. See movie times.