The films of writer/director Nicole Holofcener are trim and personal, lit with the light of real life and warmed by the friction of relationships bumping around onscreen. Informed by the style and stuff of Woody Allen (but with the caviling dialed down to base levels), Holofcener’s movies focus not so much on people but on the hinges between people, however rusted. With only four features to her credit, she’s hammered out a recognizable dramatic form, and if that form is now available in a popular cookie-cutter that allows for mass production among the faux-indie set, Holofcener deserves credit for shaping situations that can stick with us for years ( dialogue from 1996’s Walking and Talking, is easily remembered, however feathery a movie it seemed to be during its original run). Holofcener’s films can be mistaken for bo-bo self-congratulation, and they tend to weaken when characters veer towards the ramshackle mileposts of redemption stuck in their paths, but her archetypes are made of flesh, bone, heart, and mind, and her stories pinch our edges with their truth even when their hands are clumsy. This is as true of her latest piece as it was of her previous ones, but formula is catching up to this director, whose own hand is starting to get a little heavy.
Please Give is about a New Yorker confronted by her privilege on a daily basis. Kate (Catherine Keener) owns a 10th Ave. vintage furniture shop with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and wrestles with her guilt over low-balling relatives for the sofas of the recently deceased. She also feels guilty about waiting on the death of their elderly neighbor (Ann Guilbert), whose next-door apartment is poised to become their renovated extension. Kate lives better when others grow worse, in other words, and it’s dawned on her that she’s suspiciously close to a colonial growing fat on the labors and erasures of others. It’s easy to avoid thinking about those others when they’re out of sight, but Kate and Alex prosper on the backs of folks too uncomfortably proximate. That’s how Kate reads it, at least, and that’s how she tries to explain herself to her unconcerned husband and her grasping teenager Abby (Sarah Steele), and to her neighbor’s granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet), who can’t hide their distaste for the situation over Grandma Andra’s apartment or for Grandma herself, a perfect pill.
This is the arc of Kate’s character: as the movie progresses, fewer people around her are willing to keep the small-talk light and disguise their opinion on everything from a home’s odor to the inappropriateness of a birthday gift. Bad complexions get called out, as do bad motives. Kate fumbles her attempts to keep her etiquette shield up; she puts her foot in her mouth whenever she’s overwhelmed by compassion, as if real sympathy between people (and classes of people) is a lost art — or as if it had ever been a retained skill at all. Keener is indispensable to this role, never mind her status as Holofcener’s muse. Tall, thin, with all the points and angles of upscale circumstance (not to mention the glorious hair), Keener’s always mitigated her in-your-face advantages with her sad eyes, her raspy speech, and her klutzy b’gosh. She’s hard to dislike and that makes her perfect in the role, which is meant to seem (all-too) familiar. When she tries to ease her guilt by giving alms or scoping out volunteer ops, we understand what drives her. The Holofcener demographic is aware of the awkward, undeserved authority not just of giver over give but of privilege itself, and we’re forced to confront it onscreen as Kate confronts it in the street. If we miss this imperative, despite the film’s title and recurring setups, Holofcener also includes a running gag about leaf-watching (that yuppie trip to the woods to see the fall colors) which is used to good satiric effect — at least until one of the film’s most cynical characters buys into the activity in the last act and exonerates it with a moist smile.
Here lies the problem with Please Give, a charming but also charmingly addled film that results in a bit of a podge, as if Holofcener changed her mind about direction or failed to give her characters the consideration they demand of us in turn. A generous critic might say this is deliberate — that nothing is tidy in film as it is in life — Holofcener has done fuller work elsewhere. There isn’t a bad performance to be found onscreen, and it’s a credit to the cast who tack flesh onto thumbnails. But everyone’s written a little too Psychology 101, like the sister who’s miserable until she finds a boyfriend, and the other sister who flirts with a married man to feel better after being “thrown over” for another woman by her own guy. There’s Alex, who drifts into an affair the moment his wife becomes preoccupied with something Not Him, and there’s Abbey, who Hates Everything But Not Really. Andra, The Curmudgeon, is a go-to caricature whose only purpose, besides comic relief, is to warn us that our native malice can’t be paved over by kind acts (what else are we supposed to think when we learn that she used to volunteer quite a bit herself?).
Things are a tad oversimplified and streamlined for our consumer pleasure — even the film’s ironic thrust, and even with all the potential contradictions being set up, which may have given us longer pause were they handled better. There’s no question that Please Give is an appealing diversion with clever enough quips and human enough moments and with just enough paradox to engage us (what do we make of the recurring image of a dead old woman in a chair?). Holofcener gives us winsome people to people-watch and to reflect on, but we get as much out of them as we get from strangers strolling past our outdoor-café chair and disappearing up the street. She also gives us scenes meant to make us squirm, but the squirming takes us nowhere, as do pat observations about the absurdity of urban life—about how urban life rearranges what we think of as normal. Stop the presses.
The film’s Keener-klutzy message is intended to be ironic, or at least a gentle exposé on the emotional perils of disposable income with an unsurprising conclusion: rather than being a measure of personality, kind acts leave the giver feeling guiltier. There’s truth in this, at least among Holofcener’s target audience of urbanites who see a hip sort of beauty in a mid-century dining-room set. However textbook and overplayed the dynamics of Holofcener’s relationships, we can’t escape seeing ourselves in these characters, or at least in aspects of them. This is always a good thing, and let’s be frank: Kate’s predicament is ripe for examination. Her charity crisis arrives onscreen at the perfect historical moment, when Gen-Xer audiences have too much education and pride of progress to sit on their savings guilt-free. The crisis is familiar to many of us, who dutifully click “Confirm” at the bottom of online donation pages but never feel they’ve leveled the field. Neither has Holofcener, whose film accuses with a little too much affection, which in turn makes it a little too easy to dismiss (and justify our purchase of $200 jeans). I’m not sure if Please Give is artfully ambivalent or just maladroit, because ideas collide around and leave bright, can’t-miss-it trails that sometimes undermine or even re-undermine their own blaze of morality. But I was entertained and able to empathize, and the set-pieces sure were lovely. And who knows? Maybe moments of Please Give will still be with me fifteen years from now.