Please Give

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With "Please Give," her fourth feature, the gifted writer-director Nicole Holofcener makes a leap forward, showing greater maturity and subtlety in centering her quintessential New York tale on one intriguing and complex character, splendidly play by Catherine Keener.
Having appeared in each of her previous films, Keener may or may not bee Holofcener's alter ego, but it's an intimate collaboration that has proved fruitful for both helmer and actress, one of the very best of her generation, who, regrettably is still underused by mainstream Hollywood.
Helming four features in over a decade, Holofcener is not a prolific writer-director. However, alongside Lisa Cholodenko and Sophia Coppola (who's younger), she brings a fresh, personal, lightly feminist (but not doctrinaire) perspective to femme-driven stories, which, among other achievements, offer substantial roles for women.
I have liked Holofcener's former features, especially her stunning debut, "Walking and Talking," starring Catherine Keener, Anne Heche and Todd Field, one of Sundance Film Fest's greatest hits, though I had some reservations about "Friends with Money." 
"Please Give" world premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Fest and will be released by Sony Classics in a platform mode April 30.
In the new, understated serio-comedy, Catherine Keener plays Kate, a New York antique dealer and philanthropist. When the tale begins, Kate seems preoccupied; there's a lot on her mind. First, there are job-related issues, such as the ethical problem of buying furniture for low prices at estate sales before marking it up at her trendy Manhattan store.
Then there’s the "materialism" issue, based on her not wanting her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) to desire the expensive items that Kate wants. Add to it the daily concern of sharing a partnership in parenting, business, and life with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and you get the image of a bright, alert and busy woman, which begins to have doubts about her marriage and lifestyle.
A good eye for furniture has served Kate and Alex well. Specializing in trendy modern design, the store is so successful that they are able to buy the apartment next door. The plan is to enlarge and remodel the extra-space, except that it is still inhabited by former owner, Andra. Before they can knock down walls, they have to wait for Andra to vacate, that is to die.
Meanwhile, they stock up on vintage inventory by buying pieces from the apartments of newly-deceased New Yorkers. To alleviate his guilt, Alex rationalizes: “We buy from the children of dead people.” At one such occasion, Kate buys gorgeous modern furniture and accessories at a bargain from a man who doesn’t recognize the value of his mother’s “junk.” You see, Kate is a canny buyer but she suffers from bad conscience: She worries about the ethics of her business and the poverty and homelessness around her. To compensate, she hands out money to needy street people.
Daughter Abby is both amused and annoyed by her mom's guilty fretting. Awash in teen-drama angst, she is preoccupied with her acne and the search for the perfect pair of jeans. For his part, surrounded by two demanding femmes, Alex looks on as a droll foil to both.
Andra’s granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, who was so good in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"), a gentle radiology technician, visits daily, shopping and tidying for the old woman, keeping her company and tolerating her cranky quirks with good nature. She keeps a frosty distance from Kate–“She looks at you and sees death,” Abby tells her mom. “You’re a vulture.”
Rebecca shares a tiny apartment with her sister Mary (Amanda Peet), who, less forgiving of Andra’s sharp tongue and crabby manner, visits less often. Working at a spa, where she gives facials and cultivates her tanning-bed bronze, she is blunt and bitchy. You might say that she falls easily into the role of “the bad sister,” while Rebecca dutifully plays “good sister,” who reproaches Mary for her drinking, tanning, microwave food, neglect of Grandma.
Both sisters are single. Mary indulges her morbid curiosity about her ex-boyfriend’s new girl by peering daily in the window of the shop where she works. Rebecca has tried Internet dating but with wretched results; she is befriended by one of her patients, Mrs. Portman (Lois Smith), who sees her as a potential girlfriend for her cute, sensitive, but very short grandson, Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas).
To thaw the ice, Kate invites her neighbors for dinner in honor of Andra’s birthday. As the film's centerpiece, it turns out to be both hilariously and painfully stilted soiree. Andra scowls and kvetches; Mary is sarcastic while drinking her bourbon and flirts with Alex; Abby shows up wearing panties over her head to hide a fulminating blemish.
Mary suggests to help Abby’s acne with a facial at the spa, and she also pressures Kate into describing their planned remodel, despite the awkwardness of the situation. Nevertheless, Kate’s good intention of improving neighborly relations pay off—Rebecca warms up a bit to both Abby and Kate.
A comedy of errors follows, when it’s not Abby but Alex who first comes to the spa for a facial from Mary, a visit that quickly escalates into a kiss and an affair. Meanwhile, Rebecca and Eugene are double-dating with their grandmas. In a lovely scene, the duo take Andra and Mrs. Portman for a scenic drive to view the autumn leaves, only to observe Andra's stubborn refusal to take pleasure in the beauty.


Predictably, Rebecca’s romance with Eugene takes off, but Mary’s affair with Alex fizzles out, when Alex feels remorse about his infidelity. Kate, meanwhile, is beset by guilt about the "state of the whole world," and suspicion that "something is amiss" with Alex. In search for greater meaning, she tries out volunteering–reading to the elderly, helping out in a sports program for disabled youth. However, her efforts at redemption, through good deeds in themselves, just add to her sadness and often result in tears, rather than joy.

Things change when one day Andra doesn’t wake up from her chair, and Rebecca finds her dead. After telling Kate, the two share an empathetic moment of mourning and consolation. The same day, Mary’s back at work in the spa when Abby comes in for facial.
Disconcertingly Abby learns about Andra's death and about Alex's facials—an uncharacteristic activity for her rumpled father, prompting Mary to attack Abby’s blemishes with strong enzyme peel to the point where the latter's face gets pink and raw. Kate is there to lovingly comfort her distraught daughter, and Alex reassures Abby that his dalliance with Mary is over and that his bond with Kate is still strong. After attending Andra’s funeral, the family says goodbye to its next-door neighbors–the apartment is now theirs to renovate.

As a scribe, Holofscener has always been sensitive to the zeitgeist, and in the adroitly titled "Please Give," she again is concerned with timely issues of money, status, and class. In other words, how to live well, with flaunting your excesses, and be a good person at a time when American society is plagued by unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and other problems.

Adding color to the saga, which may sound somber by my description but it's actually humorous, are Kate's diverse neighbors. Prime among them is the elderly and cranky Andra and her two granddaughters. Holofcener is adept at depicting a tangled web of interactions within and without Kate's nuclear family, highlighting their shifting nature, an odd, complex mix of animosity and friendship, deception and guilt, empathy and love.
Like her other features, "Please Give" is subtle in tone and nonjudgmental towards its oddball aggregate of characters, both lead and secondary. For the most part, the text is noted by its sharp humor and perceptive observations, though occasionally it slides into pathos and melodrama (a recurrent problem in the director's work, as was evident in "Friends With Money").
It takes almost a reel to get involved in Holofscener's loopy narrative, but be patient and you will ultimately be rewarded. Here is a comedy-drama that unlike most mainstream fare is attuned to the inherent contradictions of postmodern, capitalistic lifestyle. It's an existence that seems stable and alluring on the surface, but when inspected more closely, it reveals shaky and dubious social and moral foundations.


Catherine Keener………………………Kate
Amanda Peet……………………………Mary
Oliver Platt………………………………Alex
Rebecca Hall……………………………Rebecca
Sarah Steele……………………………Abby
Ann Guilbert…………………………….Andra
Thomas Ian Nicholas………………….Eugene
Written and Directed by Nicole Holofcener
Produced by Anthony Bregman
Executive Producer Caroline Jaczko
Director of Photography Yaron Orbach
Editor Robert Frazen
Original Music by Marcelo Zarvos
Costume Designer Ane Crabtree
Production Designer Mark White
Associate Producer Stefanie Azpiazu
Casting Jeanne McCarthy