- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 18, 2006

‘Money’ is latest film venture for eclectic Catherine Keener

In the span of 12 months, she made a non-virgin of Steve Carell’s 40-year-old, provided moral ballast to lifelong friend Truman Capote as he undertook “In Cold Blood” and moved, sons in tow, into an emotional hothouse with Daniel Day-Lewis and his teen daughter.

After those appearances — as Mr. Carell’s Trish, as writer Harper Lee in “Capote” and in Rebecca Miller’s muted beauty “The Ballad of Jack and Rose — she is taking a move that might be considered “dancing with the one that brung you.”

Catherine Keener stars — along with Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack— in Nicole Holofcener’s gamely observed “Friends With Money.” The movie, about four friends living in Los Angeles, opens nationwide on Friday.

DeNiro and Scorsese. Thurman and Tarantino. Denzel and Spike. Miss Keener and Miss Holofcener. Actors and the filmmakers gifted at drawing remarkable performances from them. The muses and the directors.

“Friends With Money” is writer-director Holofcener’s third movie in a decade. Miss Keener has been central to the prickly grace of all three.

In “Walking and Talking,” she’s Amelia, who unravels some as best friend Laura (Anne Heche) nears her wedding. In the gem “Lovely & Amazing,” Miss Keener touches and infuriates as Michelle, one of three very different daughters.

Last week, Miss Keener tried to explain her history with the director and its lessons on the phone from Los Angeles, where both live.

“I’m her biggest fan, obviously,” Miss Keener says of Miss Holofcener, “but now that we have these three movies, there’s this whole feeling of such respect for her.”

She amends that.” I always respected her. But now I feel … she was up to something the whole time.’

“It’s a cliche, but we have a shorthand with each other now. We’re less sensitive with our feelings. I defy her to insult me.”

Miss Holofcener credits Miss Keener with helping her shed some tentative habits. During their first film together, Miss Holofcener recalls Miss Keener just stopping and saying, “‘What? Just say it. What do you want me to do? Where do you want me to stand? How do you want me to say it?’”

“I really learned from that,” Miss Holofcener says. “Actors want to hear it. They’re confused. They don’t want to make jerks out of themselves.”

Says Miss Keener: “She’s so loving. And you can see it in her movies. She’s not saying she’s any different or above her characters. She’s saying, ‘Look at us. I know we’re all self-absorbed, trying to get it right, loving people.’”

Indeed, what Miss Holofcener does so well in her intimate, very human tales is turn a forgiving but unflinching gaze on the foibles, even selfish myopia, of her characters. In “Lovely & Amazing” (2001), Michelle rattles on inappropriately about her mother’s narcissism to her much younger sister Annie, who is adopted and black.

Miss Keener’s characters — especially those crafted by Miss Holofcener — often capture a sense of armored vulnerability. Their smiles invite and defend — as do their easy but sharp laughs. Often it feels as if you’re watching esteem swim hard toward the surface of a surprisingly strong individual.

For her icy, complicated turn as Maxine in “Being John Malkovich,” Miss Keener was nominated for a best-supporting-actress Oscar. She was nominated again this year for her perfectly calibrated portrayal of “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee in “Capote.”

At the outset of “Friends With Money,” Miss Keener’s Christine and her husband (also her screenwriting partner) are building an addition. Soon they’ll have a view of the ocean from their bedroom. They’ll also block that same view for many of their neighbors.

Miss McDormand, Miss Cusack and Miss Aniston complete the quartet of friends. The former “Friend” with the most money plays the pal with the least. Her character, Olivia, works as a housekeeper.

“I love it that Nicole puts it forth that the poorest person of the group is the one with the least problem talking about money,” Miss Keener says.

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