2010, R, 90 min. Directed by Nicole Holofcener. Starring Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Lois Smith, Thomas Ian Nicholas.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 11, 2010
Spending time in the company of writer/director Holofcener’s characters is a treat that comes around too infrequently. Her films capture snatches of life and conversations that are resonant and recognizable, contemporary and complex, precise yet open-ended in their presentation and meaning. Holofcener’s world is drenched in familiarity, especially in its focus on women, their interior lives, and their complicated feelings about body image. Yet this Manhattan-set movie also captures a sense of the present-day economic reality in America in its depiction of the growing gulf between the haves and have-nots and the ever-increasing sense of guilt the privileged feel regarding their altruistic impulses – or lack thereof. From the very opening images of Please Give, it is clear that Holofcener is determined to show us aspects of women’s lives rarely explored in feature films. One by one, we see breasts of every size, shape, and skin color plopped onto the glass plate of a mammogram X-ray machine while the Roches sing in amusing counterpoint on the soundtrack. Automatically, we are dropped into Holofcener’s unseen world of women and the dissonance between viewing breasts for their cultural and sexual contexts and as “tubes of potential danger” as Rebecca (Hall), the radiology tech, refers to them. Rebecca is the granddaughter of crotchety Andra (marvelously played by Guilbert, who will be best remembered as the next-door neighbor, Millie Helper, on The Dick Van Dyke Show, or perhaps in a different decade as one of the Del Boca Vista neighbors on Seinfeld). Andra lives in the apartment next door to Kate (played by Holofcener mainstay Keener) and Alex (Platt), whose desire to purchase and break through the walls of Andra’s apartment after her death is a well-known secret. Kate frets about the responsibilities of privilege and gives generously to panhandlers on the street and makes a few tragicomic attempts at volunteer opportunities. Recently, she has become concerned about the business ethics she and Alex practice in their vintage furniture store: specifically, buying pieces for a pittance from children of deceased elders and then reselling the items in their store for a substantial profit. Other central characters include Kate and Alex’s daughter, Abby (Steele), whose acne-pocked face is a walking poster for body-image issues, and Rebecca’s unhappy sister Mary (Peet), who gives facials in a day spa. There’s a sexual infidelity and a few other incidents, but the pleasure of Please Give lies in its conversations rather than its plot. In fact, the film’s attempt to bring all the character arcs together toward the end results in frustrations similar to most attempts at achieving simultaneous climax. Some of what’s so lovely about Please Give is its very reluctance to spell out exactly what the characters have learned and its acceptance of the prickliness that is essential to so many of their natures. In the past, I have used the word “perambulating” to describe Holofcener’s characters, and it’s as good a word here as ever. A stroll with these characters is a refreshing break from from the usual film exercises.