(No longer in theaters)
Sony Pictures Classics
Apr 30, 2010
In Catherine Keener, writer-director Nicole Holofcener has found a warm, throaty, appealingly bedraggled agent for expressing her up-to-the-minute confusions. Their fourth collaboration is Please Give, an engagingly high-strung comedy about lack of empathy and the gnawing guilt that can attend it. Keener plays Kate, who, along with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), runs a furniture store with an inventory purchased from children of old people who’ve just died. They’re so successful—most of those heirs have no clue what their parents’ furniture is worth—that they’ve bought the apartment next door and plan to break through once its 91-year-old tenant (Ann Morgan Guilbert) gives up the ghost. But Kate doesn’t want to see herself as an exploiter. She Googles places to volunteer. She presses food and money on people in the street, among them a black man who turns out to be waiting for a table at a restaurant. She invites the old woman next door and her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet) to dinner to show she’s human. Keener is so good at projecting plain, sensible intelligence that when she’s overwhelmed and loses control (as she always does in Holofcener’s movies), her cries don’t seem egoistic, actressy. They evoke those moments when the noise falls away and fog clears and we suddenly realize the breadth of the chasm between what we do and who we think we are.
Holofcener’s plotting can seem casual (many characters, no speeches pointing up the themes, no conventional climaxes), but her dialogue is smart, an oscillating mixture of abrasiveness and balm, of harsh satire and compassionate pullback. As the title of her first feature spells out, the challenge her female protagonists face is “walking and talking”—that is, trying to act with confidence while maintaining awareness and self-control. Hall, a tall actress who can project a charming gawkiness (she has one of the most natural American accents of any Brit I’ve heard), plays Rebecca, a radiology technician who performs mammograms. Pale and raw, socially stunted by her mother’s suicide, she has too much awareness, while her sister, Mary (Peet), sports an orangey salon tan and is all reckless impulse. It might seem too thematically tidy that Rebecca looks at women’s insides while Mary stays on the surface (she gives facials), but together they embody the two overriding sources of female anxiety: sex hormones (Rebecca calls breasts “tubes of potential danger”) and the beauty mask.
As in Lovely & Amazing, Keener’s character in Please Give has a daughter with beauty issues. Abby (Sarah Steele) is plump with terrible skin, and longs for that one article of clothing—an expensive pair of jeans—that she thinks will change her life. This leads to a shopping scene in which she screams and swears at Kate in a clothing store, then locks herself in the dressing room until closing time. The film is all suggestive crosscurrents: Abby wishes her mother would tell her the truth about her looks instead of using maternal euphemisms, as Rebecca and Mary wither under their self-centered grandmother’s meanness. Yet you can’t hate the grandmother. Once or twice, Guilbert gives you a glimpse of huge frightened spirit, trapped in that small, failing body.
Holofcener’s fondness softens without sentimentalizing, which is why Platt’s Alex, a fount of self-indulgence, can seem so likable and even—with a delicate cleft chin on a large head—romantic. Only one scene misfires: a visit to the super’s basement apartment intended to underline the obliviousness of Kate’s altruism. Otherwise, Please Give pushes past ridicule and comes out the other side—to a place where even $235 jeans can be a symbol of love.