Friday, June 18, 2010
Thank goodness for Nicole Holofcener, the writer/director whose Please Give is an acidic bath in a movie summer where far too many films are injections of sugar. Holofcener provides another leading role for Catherine Keener, who shows here again that she has cornered the market on darkly funny urban unhappiness. Keener plays Kate, who with her husband Alex (excellent Oliver Platt) operates a vintage downtown NYC furniture store that gets its stock from buying the possessions of the recently deceased. Like just about every other character in Please Give, Cate feels almost exactly the opposite of how someone in her situation should feel. The successful business seems to bring her no happiness, she's starting to feel like a grave robber, and her efforts to make amends by giving money to the homeless lead to embarrassing scenes like the one in which she offers her leftovers to a black man who is actually waiting for a table at another restaurant.
If Cate and Alex's work is hitting a little too close to home it's because they're waiting for someone to die themselves. Their neighbor Andra (Ann Guilbert) is 91 and bad-tempered; Kate and Alex own her apartment and plan to expand theirs after Andra dies. Andra's granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) spends most of her time as a caretaker while other granddaughter Mary (Amanda Peet) is unrepentantly selfish. Although Keener's glower dominates the movie the ensemble all get their moments. Holofcener seems to be the only American making films about how different generations of women relate to each other. An uncomfortable scene where a drunken Mary draws Kate into describing her plans for Andra's apartment within Andra's hearing is a turning point; Kate's need to connect with something besides dead people's furniture leads to awkward volunteerism but almost costs her a relationship with teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). Steele gives Abby a touching lack of guile which is especially poignant when played off of everyone's beaten-down misery.
The expressions on Keener and Platt's faces in the closing shot ends Please Give with some hope for the future. The early scenes zip along with screwball-fast dialogue but Holofcener is after something slower and deeper. Please Give is a movie about surviving; if we're alive then we have to go on, even with only a daughter's smile or sister's touch to sustain us. May Holofcener and Keener continue working together. I'm happy to see just a little light creep in at the end of this marvelously dark tale.