Sundance Film Fest 2010–Please Give

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By Patrick Z. McGavin

The movies of Nicole Holofcener ("Walking and Talking," "Lovely & Amazing") have a pleasing shape and dynamic rhythm she captures in a smooth, unadorned style that lend her strongesst work an observational, wry and sometimes painfully authentic realism.

Her new film, "Please Give," is another comedy of manners on relationships, love, money, real estate and family dynamics. Her comedies are often colored by a shock of recognition that taken with the deft timing lend a seriousness and heft to the material.

This new work is her first feature since "Friends with Money" opened Sundance six years ago. She's been working in television in the interim, but her timing and whip smart sensibility have certainly not suffered.

Holofcener's frequent "muse," and key collaborator, Catherine Keener, plays the movie's protagonist, Kate. She lives in Manhattan with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and their 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). The couple own and operate a special modernist home design and furniture boutique.

They acquire a lot of their material, goods and product by direct negotiations through the middle-aged children of their recently deceased parents. Kate is increasingly uncomfortable with this somewhat unusual commercial and business dealings, especially since they acquire the family possessions at bargain prices and sell them for a significant profit. It makes for a great business model, but the emotional implications of guilt and resignation are difficult to shake.

Kate's world is held aloft by her own principles and self-introspection to do the right thing. She thinks about volunteering and constantly offers money, food or small gifts to the downtrodden or transients that turn up around their neighborhood.

Even more than Holofcener's previous work, "Please Give" is dominated by various and interconnecting commercial and personal transactions. It is probably a little too crude to say the movie is governed wholly by money. More subtly the movie is about how virtually all manner of human connection, personal motivation and social behavior is shaped by a need for success and comfort.

Those concerns dominate the film's interconnected storyline of the sometimes fractious or wary relationship Kate and her husband have with the two granddaughters of their direct, plainspoken 91-year-old next door tenant (Ann Morgan Guilbert). The two sisters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), are marked contrasts, emotionally, temperamentally, to Kate. They're attractive though unsettled. Rebecca's particularly sullen and emotionally distant, and Mary, intoxicating and mercurial, also lives on the edge, still carrying a torch for the man that left her for another woman. (In one of the movie's peculiarly off-center subplots, Mary stalks the man's new girlfriend.)

"Please Give" acknowledges the explicit class ruptures and sometimes extreme professional stratification of modern New York. Rebecca works as a radiologist at a cancer clinic and Mary works at a health, facial and tanning spa. The sisters' defensive posture is governed by two overlapping fronts, their sometimes hostile and impatient interaction with their contentious and argumentative grandmother. The sisters share a palpable anger at what they imagine is the almost cavalier way Kate and Alex are awaiting for their grandmother's death in order seize the apartment and undertake an elaborate rehab.

Given that mortality underlines a great part of the story, "Please Give" has a sometimes strange, elusive emotional range and register. Holofcener is very persuasive, clever and revealing in shuttling between the lighter and darker shades of the material. The movie is incident packed, sometimes to its disadvantage; the plot bounces outward to include an affair between two of the principals and Rebecca's tentative, funny stabs of having her own relationship.

It holds together, for the most part, through the interaction of people and is driven by the manner the particular conflict of these characters yield a dark though recognizalbe humor that gathers a forceful buoyancy, wit and freshness. Kate is the center of this orbit, and the movie sharply captures the tumult, energy and sometimes contradictions of her attempt to find balance and meaning in her life, work and home. Kate's a softer variation of some of the nasty characters Keener is sometimes called to take on. It is the directness of her feelings, the rawness and pain freely intermixed, that emotionally centers the film.

The film's not perfect, obviously. The multiple plot threats sometimes restrict the emotional depth and complexity of the characterization; the development of the two sisters sometimes suffers by comparison. Holofcener's great talent, in casting, and directing and writing, is a natural feel for back and forth human conversation involving Kate and her husband and daughter and the two sisters' dealings with their grandmother.

These are hard topics to get at realistically, especially the material involving frailty and transience. Holofcener successfully grants her characters a quiet dignity and strength that culminates in two beautiful moments, Kate's emotional reaction to spending time with a group of developmentally challenged teenagers and a powerfully quiet moment with the two sisters that expresses their shared loss.

At its best, which is fairly frequent, "Please Give" allows all its characters their rightful day in the sun.