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TBTS Reviews: Please Give

August 12, 2010

I don’t know a lot about writer-director Nicole Holofcener, but I like her. There’s a certain ease about her films by which you feel rather detached and uninvolved with her characters in the first act, but by the finale you somehow seem to care quite a bit about the people she’s written together. Friends With Money and Lovely and Amazing, both Holofcenter’s prior efforts, placed interesting people in not particularly interesting situations, but the action comes wholly from the interaction of her ensembles. This is probably why Holofcener has also been a great fit for two very well-liked television shows on my end, Six Feet Under and Bored to Death, both of which fit her formula quite well. She realizes that human connection is as much “action” as a film sometimes needs. As such, I shouldn’t be surprised that I found myself surprisingly touched and moved by Please Give, but I surely was.

Holofcener is also clearly a favorite director of actress (and my perpetual indie-film crush — sorry, Parker Posey) Catherine Keener, who is pretty much phenomenal in everything she does. In Please Give, she plays Cathy, one half of a couple which owns a second-hand shop specializing in looting the goods left behind by the elderly and which tends to re-sell those goods at prices far above what the families of the dearly departed believe they’re worth. Her husband Alex (Oliver Platt, who has a knack for elevating any film he’s in by at least one notch) sees their shop as strictly business as Cathy peruses the deceased’s apartments for whatever might be scourable, all the while with the next of kin alongside her in the same room. Awkward.

Alex has no problem with the intellectual-scavenger lifestyle he and Cathy have carved for themselves along with daughter Abby (a terrifically angsty Sarah Steele); he’s a city-dweller who has become too lazy to remain hip. He watches a lot of television and prattles about what Howard Stern did on the radio that morning; “You used to read books,” Cathy reminds him. Cathy herself is feeling the shadow of her own age creeping in over her, which leads her to twinges of liberal guilt at the service she and Alex provide. No longer a young city-scener, she’s beginning to realize the morbidity of her actions. 

To further compound and rattle Cathy’s growing conscience, the couple has also purchased the apartment of the cranky 91 year-old woman next door, upon whose death Alex and Cathy will tear down a wall and usurp her apartment into their own. She’s cared for by her granddaughters, nurse Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, excellently understated as the wallflower) and cruel spa employee hipster Mary (Amanda Peet), who realize the couple next door’s dubious intentions and interpret them as vultures. 

Please Give is akin to a Woody Allen film without the overt one-liners; soon Alex, Cathy and Abby begin to integrate with Rebecca, Mary and their grandmother Andra. While Cathy quietly embarks on a midlife crisis of morality, seeking to give something back for what she feels she’s taken, Alex acts out in aduluterous ways that don’t feel especially whole-hearted — it’s as if he feels this is what he’s supposed to be doing at this point in his life. 

Add in Rebecca’s reluctance to shirk her duties caring for her grandmother to embark on a new relationship, Abby’s self-consciousness and Mary’s awful human-beingness (which even itself belies a slight trace of humanity) and Please Give becomes a study in youth, mid-life and old-age — and the perceptions and truths of those life stations. Holofcener’s script sneaks up on you; just when you think you’re disconnected from the proceedings, you suddenly realize you’re quite connected to these characters. Out of nowhere, you slowly begin to notice you’re pulling for (most) all of them to turn out all right in the end. 

Holofcenter has a deft ear for dialogue, and much of Please Give is very funny. It’s also very sweet, a character study in which everyone simply needs something to make themselves whole — for Alex it’s sex with someone younger, for Cathy it’s a feeling of giving back, for Rebecca it’s a life outside her own and for Abby it’s simply a $200 pair of blue jeans. It’s a real story for a real time, free of hip NYC-denizen pretention that any other director would likely have heaped upon the movie. It’s both very much about the city and not about the city at all. It’s both about these people and about all of us. In the end, Holofcener delivers a smart comedy with a lot of heart and soul. Just like Cathy, the film begins scattered and callous — but ends by giving mightily to its audience.

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