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Issue Date:  April 28, 2006

It's all about the cash

'Inside Man' bank robbery is a clever ride; 'Friends with Money' doesn't dig deep


Spike Lee’s Inside Man is a bank heist movie that is both huge fun and full of clever twists. It’s cause for general celebration that the longtime outsider director (“Malcolm X,” “Do the Right Thing”) has made a bankable studio movie, though I defy spectators to keep up with all the puzzles of Russell Gewirtz’s intricate screenplay.

Mr. Lee, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes brilliant use of his downtown Manhattan set and reminds us of how well he knows the city and its ethnic splits. Photographer Matthew Libatique quickly picks out world-famous downtown buildings with arresting shots of their insignia. The opening has Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) speaking directly to the audience, explaining he’s about to execute “the perfect crime.” Four thieves enter the bank in coveralls, like painters who have a job to do. Later, they make their hostages wear the same outfits so police won’t be able to tell who the thieves are. Outside, when an irate Sikh bank employee, complaining of post-9/11 profiling, insists that the cops give him back his turban, a black police detective comments, “I bet you can get a cab, though.”

“Inside Man” has an all-star cast headed by Denzel Washington as Keith Frazier, a veteran detective looking for a promotion, a man who can keep his head in the danger and confusion of extreme crisis. Dalton Russell’s opening speech gets our attention, and we try to make sense of the disciplined actions of the armed robbers, who easily overcome both employees and bank customers. They make them disrobe, don coveralls and lie on the floor in various rooms, fearing for their lives.

Meanwhile, Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a smooth fixer with connections, has been hired by the dignified bank president (Christopher Plummer) to locate some mysterious papers in a safe deposit box and prevent them from becoming public. The robbers ask for an airplane, presumably to make their escape, and the bank is surrounded by armed police in a fascinating display of emergency police procedure. Keith Frazier and his detectives consult anxiously in an improvised command room with heavy-duty electronic surveillance devices. Mr. Lee, after building up a high level of intensity, deliberately takes time for lots of trash talk, often with racial overtones, and even pauses to let the head robber warn a preteen boy against the violent video games he’s playing.

Mr. Lee captures the New York scene around the bank and the many ambiguities of the situation. Concentrating on character complexity rather the mechanics of terror, he lets us see good and bad in both the police and the hostages. When Keith, who above all wants to save lives, goes into the bank to evaluate the situation, he’s amazed to meet a bank robber like Dalton, who wants to know why he isn’t married. For a top detective, his answer isn’t very good -- that he can’t afford to -- but it prepares for a plot twist near the end when Dalton (accidentally?) bumps into him.

After you leave the theater, there will still be lots of questions about the credibility of individual details, but during the movie you’re sitting on the edge of your seat trying (and not always succeeding) to figure things out. It’s exciting to watch Madeleine manage to enter the bank in her form-fitting suit to perform her mysterious errand for the bank president, though we are never quite sure of what she is after or what she obtains. The movie succeeds through constant reversals of expectations, not on the basis of canned violence. Despite its trickery, “Inside Man” is both good entertainment and thoughtful melodrama that sometimes seems close to being a morality play.

Friends with Money, the new movie from writer/director Nicole Holofcener, makes me rather pleased that most of mine don’t have much. Jennifer Aniston is perhaps its best-known name because of her lead role in the long-running sitcom “Friends.” Here she is Olivia, the odd unmarried woman out with longtime married friends Franny (Joan Cusack), Jane (Frances McDormand) and Christine (Catherine Keener). Olivia has just quit her job teaching high school and is now cleaning houses at $65 a visit. Though we never learn how they became close friends, the four women succeed in holding the narrative together.

Set in Los Angeles, the story features characters who are easily recognizable as emotionally needy and dissatisfied. Jane and Aaron (Simon McBurney) are married fashion designers; Christine and David (Jason Isaacs) are screenwriters who face each other angrily at individual computers; and Franny and Mike (Greg Germann) have so much money and help with their two children that they have nothing to do except think up worthy causes for charity. We join them all at two group dinners that provide a host of well-observed comic details -- like the importance of buying your kid the right kind of expensive shoes, or Olivia’s habit of stocking up on costly lotions -- but none of them really leads anywhere.

The pot-smoking Olivia keeps unsuccessfully phoning her married ex-boyfriend, Jane gets uncontrollably angry when she thinks someone cuts ahead of her at a checkout counter, and Christine and David expand their house upward, cutting off their neighbors’ view. Aaron is perhaps the most likable character in the movie: A caring dad to his son, he helps cure his wife’s depression by getting her to wash her hair -- which she has been neglecting -- and he is delighted that young men find him attractive.

Ms. Holofcener is familiar with the dissatisfactions of today’s upper-class women but doesn’t dig very deeply. When Olivia’s cleaning jobs turn out to be mostly with men, we expect that this will produce a love interest. But one customer tries to get her to reduce her fee; another gives her a sexy French maid outfit. Although a promising twist has Olivia, who feels no envy for the wealth of others, discover that one of her clients is an unlikely millionaire, “Friends with Money” is never more than a clever sitcom.

Joseph Cunneen, NCR’s regular movie reviewer, is teaching a film class at Rockland Community College in Suffern, N.Y. His e-mail is

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2006

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