Please Give *** ½
Directed by: Nicole Holofcener.
Written By: Nicole Holofcener.
Starring: Catherine Keener (Kate), Rebecca Hall (Rebecca), Oliver Platt (Alex), Amanda Peet (Mary), Ann Guilbert (Andra), Sarah Steele (Abby), Lois Smith (Mrs. Portman), Thomas Ian Nicholas (Eugene).
The films of Nicole Holofcener are surprisingly, daringly honest. In a movie environment that often paints women either as little more than wives, mothers and pictures of perfection for idiot man children, or else empty, shallow nitwits (cough, Sex and the city, cough), Holofcener’s films are like a breath of fresh air. The people in her movies – most of them women, although she doesn’t spare men either – are confused, funny, messed up, smart, kind and sometimes downright cruel. They are, in short, much like women in real life.
Please Give is Holofcener’s latest, and perhaps best, film. The movie characters include Kate (Catherine Keener), who along with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) operates one of those trendy stores in New York which sells “antique” furniture at high prices. They are constantly asked by their customers where they get their things, but they brush off the question. In reality, they buy it off of the next of kin of the recently deceased, who do not know the value of their loved ones possessions. But that would sound bad, so they don’t say it. Kate is starting to feel guilty – not just because of what they do, but because they are very good at it. They are rich beyond what they thought, and she tries to get rid of this guilt by giving more than normal to homeless people. When that doesn’t help anymore, she tries to find different places to volunteer – but just ends up making everyone feel worse, not better. All this infuriates her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who has bad skin, and wants expensive jeans, and feels ignored by her mother.
Kate and Alex are also waiting for their neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) to die. They have purchased her apartment, right next to theirs, and when she kicks the bucket, they are tearing down the wall and expanding. This doesn’t seem to bother Andra any – who is a thoroughly unpleasant old lady who bitches about everyone and everything. She has two granddaughters, and Mary (Amanda Peet) doesn’t care either. She is a bitch, knows it, hates her grandmother and sees nothing wrong with what Kate and Alex are doing. The other granddaughter, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), loves her grandmother, but that may only be because she has no one else to love. She is lonely, and works gives women mammograms all day.
In the past few years, I have grown tired of all the “liberal guilt” movies out there – the ones that congratulate the viewer for believing the right things, and mindlessly insult conservatives for being heartless monsters (which is odd, because I am very liberal). The movies seem so one dimensional to me. But Please Give is different because it sees how often giving to charity, or homeless people, or doing volunteer work isn’t always about being selfless and kindhearted and helping others – it is often about helping yourself. Keener doesn’t do what she does out of great humanitarian concern, but does it to make herself feel better. She feels bad because she has things so good, while others have them so bad. Her two attempts at volunteer work go horribly wrong because she starts to feel sorry for people (seniors and the mentally challenged) who do not feel sorry for themselves. In all her concern for others, she doesn’t see what’s right in front of her face with her own husband and daughter, both of whom turn to Amanda Peet’s Mary –albeit for different reasons.
It takes someone as self involved, bitchy and immature (she constantly watches her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, and then insults her to Rebecca) as Mary to understand what Abby is going through in terms of her own body image. Mary works at a high end spa giving facials, and she immediately picks up on Abby’s self consciousness in a way her mother, who simply dismisses it as frivolous, never does. You can almost understand Abby’s most selfish moment in the film – when she grabs a $20 bill from her mother that she was about to give to a homeless person – she has to do something to get her mother’s attention. As for Platt’s Alex, he sleeps with Mary, I think, because he knows that she is a bitch – and so there will be no actual feelings involved when it ends. He loves his wife, but is being worn down by her guilt trips. Alex is always trying to say the right things – be polite and proper, even though he is in private more self involved than even Kate.
The one person in the movie that I think is really quite good is Rebecca Hall’s Rebecca. She goes over to help her grandmother every day because she wants, not because she has to. But Rebecca is letting herself be taken advantage of. Mary is a bitch who hates her grandmother – and her grandmother hates her right back. She sees too much of herself in Mary, and Andra is just as self involved as Mary is, and Mary is the only one who will call her on it. But Rebecca is most likely more like their mother – who is not in the movie – and Andra can taken advantage of that. Mary does similar things, as Rebecca somehow needs these to take care of these people, even if they don’t deserve it. When she meets a nice guy (Thomas Ian Nicholas), Andra insults her – saying he’s too short, but that’s okay because if he was taller, he never would have gone for her anyway. We feel that Rebecca may just have a chance to escape this cycle by the end of the movie, while the other characters maybe doomed to repeat theirs.
I grow tired of movies where the characters are either one dimensional or feel like they are just pawns in a screen writer’s game. That’s why I admire the films of Holofcener so much – the people in them, whether they are good, bad or ugly – and they are often all three – feel real. She presents them, flaws and all, for the world to see. And that is so much more satisfying that watching a bunch of shallow, empty characters bitch about their sex lives and shoes.