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Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt: a smart New York comedy that explores the gap between empathy and avarice. (Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics/Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics)
Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt: a smart New York comedy that explores the gap between empathy and avarice. (Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics/Piotr Redlinksi/Sony Pictures Classics)

Please Give: Love, death and liberal guilt Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Please Give

  • Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener
  • Starring Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt and Amanda Peet
  • Classification: 14A

Something that's often missing from American movies is the middle ground of experience, between the down-trodden strivers in Sundance independent films and the star-driven fantasies that rule the box office. That makes writer-director Nicole Holofcener a rarity for her wry slice-of-life comedies, which both reflect and gently satirize the uncomfortably middle class.

Please Give is the fourth film from Holofcener ( Walking with Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money), who got her start as an editor on Woody Allen's 1986 film Hannah and Her Sisters (which her late stepfather, Charles Joffe, produced).

Allen's influence is perceptible but not intrusive and Please Give is what you'd expect from a smart New York comedy. It's sometimes precious and arch, but also blunt and witty. Please Give is also a woman's film, inasmuch as it's about family, homes and décor and, memorably, body image.

The opening pre-credit scene is a montage of breasts of all different shapes, hefts and ages being placed on a metal tray in a mammogram clinic, which must be a cinematic first. There's a subplot about a teenaged girl's desperate search for jeans that fit, another familiar ordeal. Mostly, as the title suggests, Please Give is about neurotic liberal guilt.

Catherine Keener (who has been in all of Holofcener's films) plays Kate, who runs a used furniture shop specializing in "mid-20th-century modern" furniture, most of which exists in the grey zone between kitsch and classic. Kate and her good-humored, vain husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), scoop their inventory from the bereaved relatives of recently dead old people and sell it at a sizable mark up. The work is moderately distasteful, but there's some self-righteous satisfaction in ripping off people who show contempt for their dead parents' taste in furnishings.

Kate is a sophisticated version of Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer character from Saturday Night Live - someone who can be relied upon to see the tragic side of things. She's drunk on empathy, handing out Chanel lipstick to the transvestite on the corner, or offering a $20 bill to an affronted African-American man who is merely waiting outside a restaurant for a table. Mentally handicapped people make her weep uncontrollably so they end up having to comfort her.

Meanwhile, Kate's teen-aged daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), a chubby, truculent 15-year-old with bad skin, wants some of her mother's charity to begin at home.

Kate's family lives next door to an ill-tempered, 91-year-old lady, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert, Fran Drescher's grandmother in The Nanny), whose apartment Kate and her husband have bought, with plans of expansion as soon as she dies. Andra has two granddaughters. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who works in the mammogram clinic, is kind and depressive, and Mary (Amanda Peet), a masseuse and cosmetologist, overtans, overdrinks and can't help stalking her ex's new girlfriend.

The two families come together when Kate decides to have a birthday dinner for Andra - perhaps the film's sharpest set-piece. Andra is rude; Alex flirts with Mary. Mary gets drunk, talks about Abby's acne and insists on knowing all the details of Kate's renovation plans when her grandmother dies.

Please Give is a series of such set-piece scenes, a breezy, though not negligible, exploration of the contest between avarice and empathy. The characters are entertainingly contradictory, though in a somewhat predictable way: Nice people aren't honest, and honest people aren't nice. The exception is the dutiful granddaughter, Rebecca, but she's so ground down by responsibility, she's suspicious of pleasure: Why do people go on about the leaves turning colour?

Inasmuch as the film has a conventional happy ending, it's about Rebecca's emergence from her emotional cocoon and the incrementally more healthy adjustment of other characters' behaviours.

Please Give doesn't so much end as find a place for the characters to pause, where we leave them. You suspect that, like most of us, they'll spend the rest of their lives worrying they can never get or give enough.

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