You always know where you are in a Nicole Holofcener film, and that's the here and now. No American writer-director has her exact sense of the way some of us live today, not to mention her ability to precisely calibrate the effects she's after. With her new film, the poignant and funny "Please Give," Holofcener is at the top of her game.
From her debut, "Walking and Talking," through "Lovely & Amazing" and her most recent, "Friends With Money," Holofcener has always been a piercing and amusing observer of life's anxieties and discontents, illuminating how we make our way through the tangle of dissatisfactions that confront us at every turn.
More than that, her delicate, exactly observed character studies don't shy away from showing how the coping mechanisms that allow us to get by, the things we do and say because we think we need to, often end up driving the people around us comically crazy.
As the title hints, "Please Give" concerns itself with the free-floating, amorphous guilt that's often characteristic of the modern urban condition. Obviously, it is a fine thing to help, to give, but "Please Give" wonders whether a good thing can be overdone, whether too much liberal guilt can leave you feeling too bad for too many people to do any real good.
Though Holofcener located her previous two films in Los Angeles, "Please Give" had to be set in New York because a key plot element, an examination of the peculiar lengths people go to to claim prime apartment space, would make sense nowhere else.
Front and center in this film, as she has been in each of Holofcener's previous three, is Catherine Keener. She's an actress whose intelligent and empathetic naturalness, her ability to inhabit troubled, anxious characters who achieve moments of comfort (though rarely joy), is a perfect fit for the writer-director's sensibility.
Keener plays Kate, "Please Give's" central character, whose multiple roles as wife, mother, businesswoman and neighbor all play out against the background of her self-recriminating, tower-of-guilt sense that a person in her privileged position ought to be doing more to make the world a better place if not saving it outright.
Kate and her husband run a store on 10th Avenue in Manhattan where they sell "modern Midcentury furniture" that, not to put too fine a point on it, they've purchased from the distraught sons and daughters of parents who have just died. It's an at-times manipulative way of doing business that, not surprisingly, tends to make Kate uneasy.
Harder to upset is Kate's genial husband Alex (a shrewdly cast Oliver Platt). He's a pudgy everyman second to no one in his admiration for shock jock Howard Stern, yet an individual who comes out with a plaintive "please don't wreck my fun" should his proclivities be questioned.
Anything but amiable is the couple's daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), a disagreeable 15-year-old terror who lusts for designer jeans and has nothing but contempt for a mother whose attitude is "I'm not going to give you $200 for jeans when there are 45 homeless people on this block." (Abby's disgust at Kate's compulsion to give money to random strangers is played to great comic effect.)
One of the things Kate feels guiltiest about is that she and her husband have, in typical New York fashion, bought the apartment of one of her elderly neighbors. Once the woman dies, they are planning to knock down the connecting walls and combine both spaces.
Andra, the ancient in question, turns out to be a merciless crone with a bad word for everyone. Beautifully played by Ann Guilbert, Andra is the type who says "you gained weight" instead of "hello" and "what am I going to do with this?" instead of "thank you."
Not surprisingly, Andra engenders completely different reactions in the two grown granddaughters who take turns caring for her. The sassy Mary (a dead-on Amanda Peet), who gives facials in a local day spa, has no patience for Andra, while her sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is filled with sympathy.
A radiology technician seen administering mammograms under the film's opening credits as the Roches sing their sassy version of "No Hands," the fresh-faced and shy Rebecca is the film's other focus of interest. Those who've seen Hall as the blond femme fatale in Britain's "Red Riding" trilogy will be frankly unnerved at how different she is here.
To help assuage her own guilt and to escape from the hostility she feels from Rebecca whenever they share an elevator, Kate invites the two sisters and her grandmother to be part of a dinner celebrating Andra's 91st birthday, an event that kicks the drama into a higher gear.
Though it may seem at first that "Please Give" divides people between the selfish and the guilty, with a few normal folks around the edges, that does not turn out to be the case. This is a film that focuses on the tiny moments of connection and consolation that sustain us in a hard-edged world because they are all we have. "My movies," Holofcener said in an interview, "are a series of small moments that build incrementally to ... a bigger small moment." In her skilled hands, that is saying quite a lot.
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