Very New York
Neurosis is normal in the city
by Molly Templeton
PLEASE GIVE: Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Cinematography, Yaron Orbach. Editing, Robert Frazen. Music, Marcelo Zarvos. Starring Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Rebecca Hall, Oliver Platt, Ann Guilbert and Sarah Steele. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. R. 90 minutes.
In Please Give, Nicole Holofcener’s follow-up to the wobbly, L.A.-set Friends With Money, the writer-director’s frequent alter ego, Catherine Keener, plays Kate, a neurotic New Yorker who owns a furniture shop with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt). They live in a lovely but not opulent apartment with their defensive 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), and stock their furniture shop with vintage “pieces” left behind when people die. Alex is pragmatic about this, though the occasional customer might call him an ambulance chaser, but it gnaws at Kate, adding to her billowing, complicated guilt about money, privilege and her comfortable life in general.
The guilt is inescapable at home, where Kate and Alex have purchased the apartment next door and are, politely, waiting for its occupant, 90-something Andra (Ann Guilbert), to die. Crotchety Andra is looked after by her granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a radiology technician, and, more reluctantly, by Rebecca’s abrasive younger sister Mary (Amanda Peet), who works in a spa. Their jobs are neatly indicative of their personalities, and gently mirror Holofcener’s themes: Rebecca, practical and kind, deals with vulnerable women worried about what might hide within their own bodies; Mary, insecure and brash, pretties women’s skin, a procedure some of her clients are just as certain they need.
The line between needing and wanting threads through Please Give, a quick, funny, poignant film that neither celebrates nor mocks the needs and neuroses of its characters. They’re good people doing sometimes awful things; they’re privileged white, straight, wealthy New Yorkers aware, to differing degrees, of what they have, even as they take it for granted. Kate’s need to somehow make up for who she is and what she does leads to a series of mortifying moments, all underscored by the fact that she would probably prefer that everyone else in the world be just like her, thus sparing her the trouble of worrying about them. She wants to volunteer, but sees the happy developmentally disabled kids playing basketball as a sad thing. She wants to give to the homeless, but her judgment is deeply flawed. “Giving money is easy for me,” she says, and a look that says I shouldn’t have said that flashes across her face. Giving money, if you have it, is easy. Giving yourself is harder.
Kate’s intentions are good but narcissistic, and Holofcener incisively gets at both sides of this divide. Other characters wrestle with similar conflicts: Alex doesn’t question what he does, but falls into an affair, vaguely uncertain about what he has with Kate. Abby, who’s horrified by her mother’s tendency to hand $20 bills to homeless people, wants perfect skin and $200 jeans with the burning certainty that these things will make everything better — which, for a moment, they may.
Sharply written and plainly filmed, Please Give is full of intensely funny, terribly awkward small moments among friends, family and neighbors. When the film’s characters sum up their philosophies in one line, it seems accidental, as if the speaker has no idea how neatly she’s just defined herself. Holofcener, however, seems less interested in defining anything — a mentality, a city, a social class — than in observing the conflict between intention and action, and the difficulty of being, even briefly, the people we hope we really are.
Please Give opens Friday, July 30, at the Bijou.