June 24, 2010


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Please Give (R)
The lives of a guiltily upper-middle-class woman and the put-upon granddaughter of her elderly neighbor are examined in Please Give, a dry and funny character study.

Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) own a vintage furniture shop, selling for many thousands of dollars pieces of furniture bought from adult children of recently deceased parents. The kids often don’t know or care what they’re selling and so Kate can pick up for $4,000, for example, a room full of furniture she can sell at $5,000 per piece. For reasons her husband can’t understand, this tears at Kate. She is a woman full of guilt and sorrow — and for no particular reason. But she tries to work off this deep shame at her good fortune by giving money to homeless people — $5 here, $20 there — and by volunteering. (Though, ready to cry at the first appearance of hardship, she is sent away from the old folks home and the disabled children’s center for being, basically, a downer.)

She is particularly guilt-ridden about her neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), an elderly woman who has not one single tolerable personality trait but whom Kate and Alex make gestures of befriending. They have purchased her apartment and are waiting for her to die so they can expand. Andra knows this, her family knows this and yet Kate falls over herself to convince them that she isn’t just waiting out the clock to start work on her master bedroom suite and walk-in closet.

Kate tries extra hard to be friendly to Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), Andra’s youngest granddaughter, who leaves her job as a physician’s assistant and heads to Andra’s house to care for her. If Andra feels any love toward Rebecca or any appreciation for her care of her, she keeps it a well-hid secret. She is disgruntled and grumpy with the overly kind Rebecca. Rebecca’s older sister Mary (Amanda Peet) occasionally pitches in as well — the two girls live together — but Mary is decidedly less sympathetic toward Andra. Amanda Peet has done an impressive job playing some soulless characters over the years but she does a particularly good job at it here.

Openly bitchy though Mary is, at a dinner party at Kate and Alex’s house, Alex finds himself flirting with her, and their self-conscious teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) clearly looks up to Mary, appreciating her open self-centeredness and give-no-quarter attitude.

Fascinating how someone who seems so cool to a teenager can look so immature to someone her own age.

“Everybody is awful in their own way” — that might be how you’d sum this movie up. Or “everybody compensates for their awfulness differently.” Please Give has one of those small, speed bump arcs but gets its real momentum from examining these characters — what pleases them, what makes them decent human beings, what grates about them. Nicole Holofcener has made several films with Catherine Keener, my favorite of which is Walking and Talking, and in all of them it’s more the ebb and flow of the characters’ feelings than the trajectory of the story itself that pulls you in and makes you care.

Please Give trades a bit in the kind of cringe humor that has grown so popular lately but it does it in a softer, much more organic way than, say, the recently mellow-harshing rant that was Greenberg. Kate is ridiculous, nice, loving, wronged and lucky. Keener, a delight to watching in almost every circumstance, is a particular treat to watch when playing someone so wonderfully, awfully human. B+

Rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity. Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, Please Give is an hour and 30 minutes long and is distributed by Sony.