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Right on the money

Times Staff Writer

NICOLE HOLOFCENER notices little things. She is especially attuned to the contradictions that let slip who people are. She observes herself observing things, calibrates her reactions to her observations. Her work -- she makes deftly nuanced films about very particular kinds of people, people much like her -- is the outgrowth of her reflexive self-awareness.

If she thinks about something twice, she writes it down. Say a friend who has a lot of money loans money to another friend. She starts to notice how often people talk about money -- who picks up the check, who has a maid -- then starts questioning: Should someone have a maid when they don’t have a job? Who’s entitled to what, and why are we entitled to anything? Her friend has $10 million. Couldn’t she just give her one? Would she even notice it was gone? And what would that do to the friendship? A few trains of thought in that direction and she types “Friends With Money” into the computer.

Two years and a thousand throwaway conversations, awkward encounters and funny, memorable micro-moments later, she’s imprinted her observations on a quartet of female characters living in Los Angeles. “Friends With Money,” which premiered on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, opens nationwide April 7. It stars Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Jennifer Aniston as longtime friends, at least three of whom live, very well, on the Westside.

It’s a Westside that Holofcener details much the way Woody Allen chronicled a very particular Manhattan milieu in the 1970s. The characters -- a trio of well-off, married women in their 40s and their single, broke, thirtysomething friend -- are viscerally recognizable in their mix of longing, pettiness, doubt and sincere good intentions, all stoked by a cutthroat environment in which even virtue and generosity seem to wield a competitive edge -- and not just among those in the same privileged ZIP Codes.

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“I think it’s everywhere,” Holofcener says one afternoon over lunch at Hal’s Bar & Grill on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice. It’s just before Christmas and the lunch crowd is in full holiday mode. “I think it’s heightened in L.A. because the wealth is so extreme because of the movie business and real estate. The cost of living is so high you have to be really, really rich to be rich. But I think everyone’s comparing themselves, and measuring themselves against others. This is definitely a theme in ‘Friends With Money.’ The feeling that when you reach your 40s -- I imagine it happens to a lot of people, definitely to me -- you realize that everything has fallen together the way it’s fallen together because of who you are and what you’ve done.”

Too-loud laughter emanates from the private room near our table, where an office Christmas party seems to be in full, forced swing. A woman wafts by on a toxic cloud of perfume.

“The big goals are either here, or not so far away, or you’ve failed at them. But I don’t think about that when I’m working, though. I just write about me and people I know. And from there, things develop.”

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Creativity turns self-conscious

ANOTHER day, I visit Holofcener at the bright, airy house in Topanga that she shares with her twin 8-year-old sons, her editor boyfriend and her black-lab-and-chow-mix puppy, J.D. It’s casually decorated with colorful furniture and framed photographs, and it’s human-scaled, so that a McMansion dweller from a less surreal real estate market might mistake it for modest. She likes the place -- loves the garden and the view -- but it’s a little remote and slightly Topangan for her taste and temperament, and she’s not sure how long she wants to stay there.

Certain things that seem particularly native to the place get on her nerves, such as the craze for naming one’s children torturously original names. (“Why doesn’t anyone name their kid Michael anymore? It’s like there’s so much pressure to be original, it’s not OK for someone to just be who they are.”) Recently, she saw a flier in her neighborhood advertising a course in “inner birthing.” “It was all about how to focus all your energy and attention on giving birth in this really conscious, really special, really meaningful way. I mean, how much more inner can you get? The baby is already inside you!”

Then again, this is just the kind of detail that makes her films so viscerally recognizable. There’s a scene in “Friends With Money,” for instance, in which McDormand mocks a new mother for naming her baby “Tal.” “What if he turns out to be short?” she snorts.

It’s the sort of crack Holofcener would think but not say. She did have a near miss, though, when someone introduced her child to her as “Ben.” Holofcener was about to blurt, “Thank God, a normal name!” when the woman corrected her. “No, it’s Pen. Short for Independence.” Oh.

It’s been raining hard, and the roof in her dining room is leaking. A man comes over to give her an estimate. The roof work is unavoidable, but what she’d really like to do is replace the windows. Whether it’s worth it is another story, but it sends her on a riff about the vicissitudes of materialism and adult peer pressure.

“I feel like there’s this whole generation of Dwell readers, people who can afford to build these extraordinary houses,” she says. “And then they get photographed in them, and they look so cold. The men always look gay, and the women are almost always overweight.” (A couple just like this show up in the movie.) “They are passing through these rooms looking miserable, and at the same time, you’re looking at the pictures with envy and longing: ‘Why can’t I have those windows? Is that a Knoll chair?’ But you know it’s all so sterile and pointless.”

Then after a pause, she says, “I feel blessed and cursed to be able to hear what I sound like very clearly.” Then she laughs, “Of course, my boyfriend would say, ‘You don’t hear yourself clearly!’ ”

Holofcener is 46, small and slender, with long, wavy brown hair and a friendly, freckly face. She has the youthful quality of someone who has spent most of her life in artistic surroundings and spends most of her days working in a coffee shop, an iPod drowning out the noise. Her mother, Carol Joffe, was a film set decorator until she quit 16 years ago to raise an adopted son. Her stepfather, Charles Joffe, is a well-known producer (he produced many of Woody Allen’s films), and a manager to A-list comedians. Her father, Larry Holofcener, is an artist, actor and teacher.

For a while, Holofcener considered being a painter, then got to art school and decided everyone else was better at it than she was. She transferred from San Francisco State to NYU and went on to grad school in film at Columbia.

Since graduating, Holofcener has made three small, personal and increasingly well-regarded films. Her mother recently pointed out to her that she makes a film every five years. (“Honey,” she said, “If you live to be 90, you’ll make a lot of movies!”) Right out of school, she began working on her script for “Walking and Talking.” She was introduced by a friend to producer Ted Hope, who would later found Good Machine with James Schamus, and he agreed to help her work on it. She has continued to work with the same group of producers, including Hope and Anne Carey, who went on to start This Is That Productions after the disbanding of Good Machine, and Anthony Bregman, who produced “Friends With Money.”

The modest budgets of her films -- “Walking and Talking” cost $1.2 million, “Lovely & Amazing” cost $1 million and “Friends With Money” cost $6 million -- have allowed her to focus closely on the subjects that have interested her as she has grown up. “I feel very coddled in that way that would probably make lots of young filmmakers right now like to stab me,” she says. “ ‘Well, we’re not coddled!’ I don’t know why I have that, but I’m really glad.”

In all of her films, she has cast the same actress, Keener, her longtime friend whom she calls “the funnier, prettier version of me.” “If I keep it up,” she cracks, “It’s going to be very revealing. Like Antoine Doinel, that Truffaut character who started in ‘400 Blows’ and continued in all the movies.” She has compiled, almost by accident, a body of work that traces the coming of age of a very particular kind of character. She’s like the Michael Apted of American independent film, doing her own “7 Up” time-lapse portraits.

“I’m not afraid to say that my work is autobiographical, really realistic,” she says. “I guess I like to dispel myths about people, but especially about women, what we’re really like. But it’s not like I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m going to show people what women are really like.’ I’m just writing what I know. I don’t have an agenda aside from expressing myself. And telling a story that I find interesting. If that happens, great, if someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, that character is so much like me ...,’ then great. But, you know, you don’t want to sound like a jerk.”

Not everyone appreciates the autobiographical nature of Holofcener’s movies. They have inspired criticism, personal as well as artistic, from people who see them as un-self-aware expressions of narcissism, or as unforgivable indiscretions. One reviewer described “Walking and Talking” as being ripped from the pages of Holofcener’s diary.

When “Lovely & Amazing” came out, many of her mother’s friends blanched at what they took to be an unflattering, and literal, portrait of her mother.

“A lot of people, when they saw it, assumed that because Brenda Blethyn has a tummy tuck operation that I was saying my mom had, which is not the case at all. So my mom’s friends were appalled. My mom, though, has a broader and more forgiving sense of herself as a flawed but wonderful human being. And is still insecure despite her age and experience, and that’s a fact of life.”

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Portraying life as it’s lived

ONE of the strangest characteristics of contemporary American cinema is how assiduously it avoids reflecting the way Americans live now. The medium probably best suited to document modern life is, for the most part, not interested. It’s even stranger that the city responsible for producing a disproportionate number of films, and in which so many films are set, is itself so often misrepresented on-screen.

That’s part of what makes the everydayness of celebrity fundraisers, gossipy post-dinner-party deconstructions and sidewalk meltdowns strewn through Holofcener’s stories seem remarkable -- we rarely see recognizable characters with recognizable lives on the screen. Nobody in one of Holofcener’s movies is going to be ramming her Prius into somebody else’s Hummer just “to feel something” any time soon. Instead, a character might smoke a lot of pot, obsess over face cream or build an addition to her house just to feel things a little less intensely.

Holofcener’s characters all have a searching and questioning quality. It’s as if they are always asking, “Is this really my life? Is this what the rest of my life is going to be like?” They have a tendency to ask others what they think of them, to court comparisons, to make things worse for themselves in their endless striving for self-improvement.

In “Walking and Talking,” Keener plays a single woman in her 20s who is having trouble adjusting to her best friend’s impending marriage. (The friend, played by Anne Heche, is also having trouble adjusting to the idea of marriage.) In “Lovely & Amazing,” Blethyn, Keener, Emily Mortimer and Raven Goodwin play a mother and her daughters, all grappling with identity, career issues and self-image.

In “Friends With Money,” Keener plays a screenwriter whose marriage to her collaborator-husband is falling apart as they build an addition to their house that is blocking their neighbors’ view of the ocean. McDormand plays a woman in her late 40s, a successful fashion designer married to another successful designer who everyone assumes is gay. Despite her outwardly happy life, she is consumed with anger and resentment, which she expresses by lashing out at everyone around her and refusing to wash her hair.

Except for Cusack, who plays an independently wealthy, happily married mother of two, the characters are chafing against some brutally exacting notions of success and happiness, which can knock even the strongest personality off-kilter, no matter how accomplished or loved they might be. In this environment, a character who lacks even the surface appearance of having it all is adrift.

That would be Olivia, played by Aniston. Younger than the others by about half a decade, broke and single, Olivia has quit her job at an expensive private school -- the kids would see her pull up in her beat-up car and throw quarters at her for food -- and taken up working as a maid, the masochistic manifestation of the way she’s been made to feel.

“I think my movies are an accurate depiction, but certainly not of everybody,” Holofcener says. “I mean, I remember people seeing ‘Lovely & Amazing’ and either they were in denial, or they are women I don’t know, but they were stunned by the narcissism of the movie -- how self-involved and shallow these characters were. They didn’t get that I saw that too. But I think these things do speak to a lot of people in my world. I know there are other worlds out there, but I don’t know them intimately. I think it’s interesting how boring people are, if you portray it with a certain amount of consciousness -- how boring people are, how much I bore myself, with my issues -- in a not-boring way. That’s a good goal, right?”

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A personal approach

HOLOFCENER lists as her influences Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Martin Ritt, Federico Fellini, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Truffaut and, naturally, Judy Blume. “Her stories were so banal, I thought, ‘Well, if this little girl’s problem about her period, or liking some boy and there’s food in her teeth, if that can take me through chapter after chapter, then I can write about my stupid problems!’ ”

Though she often works rewriting scripts, has directed episodes of television shows including “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under,” and recently directed her first commercial, she has not yet made the leap to a big studio movie, mainly because she has not been offered the kind of movie she would like to make. The idea of making a movie for the sake of making a movie has bugged her since film school, where she watched her classmates labor to churn out slick, impersonal genre movies.

“If you come out of school not making your personal movie, making these disconnected, slick things, where does that get you? Maybe you’ll get to direct a disconnected slick feature. But that’s not what I want, and I don’t think it’s what most aspiring filmmakers want. They want to tell their story. I just think they’ve been told that their story is not enough.”

I ask her why it is that when someone makes a great small film, it’s almost universally viewed as a steppingstone to something bigger, and she exclaims in mock alarm, “I don’t take the step!”

“I know people think, ‘Well, I did my two small movies, and now it’s time to do something else.’ But I didn’t do my two small movies just to do something bigger. They were exactly what I wanted to do. So the fact that I want to make a third small movie,” she says with a laugh, “it’s not a surprise. I always want to get better, if that means having different crew members or better locations or more money or more shooting days. But sometimes, I get the speech about getting to the next level, like, ‘OK, you’ve done your little stuff, now let’s get to the big time.’ ”

But she would like to feel that she could make a big film, or adapt a book, without being accused of selling out, or not get a blank stare when she mentions what she does.

“You know, the moms at my sons’ school: ‘Oh, good for you! You directed a little movie!’ People in the movie business generally know, but I long for the day when that embarrassing moment will not occur anymore.”


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