Film Review: Please Give

A witty and observant comedy of manners, <i>Please Give</i> is another understated gem from writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

Nicole Holofcener and Noah Baumbach are secretly the same person, right? I ask because it can’t be a coincidence that both writer-directors excel at capturing the rhythms of everyday conversation. It’s not as if they rely heavily on improvisation either; by most accounts, their films are carefully scripted down to the last beat. Where screenwriters like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet are deservedly celebrated (and, occasionally, just as deservedly ridiculed) for penning dialogue that reflects the way people wish that they talked, Baumbach and Holofcener merit equal kudos for reproducing the way people actually talk. This impressive skill is on full display in their latest pictures, Baumbach’s Greenberg and Holofcener’s Please Give, each of which are finely crafted character studies populated by people you swear you’ve met and exchanged words with in real life.

Of course, the thing that distinguishes Holofcener from Baumbach is the latter’s singular fascination with unpleasant misanthropes. Whether it’s The Squid and the Whale’s Bernard Berkman or Greenberg’s Roger Greenberg or pretty much every single person in Margot at the Wedding, Baumbach has created some of contemporary cinema’s most unrepentant (and yet strangely compelling) assholes. Holofcener’s characters aren’t exactly paragons of virtue either, but their assorted faults and foibles are more mundane and relatable.

Take Kate, the main character of Please Give (played by Holofcener’s regular muse, Catherine Keener); she’s a well-off, happily married wife and mother who runs a profitable vintage-furniture store in Upper Manhattan, a few blocks away from the handsome apartment building where her family owns one unit and recently bought the one next door with the intention of expanding. But before she and her hubby Alex (Oliver Platt) can create their dream apartment, they have to wait for the current occupant—an elderly shut-in named Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert)—to kick the bucket, which will probably happen soon since she’s 91 years old. It's worth pointing out that this isn't the first time the couple has stood to profit off someone's demise; in fact, their store's inventory is made up almost entirely of pieces purchased from the apartments of the recently deceased.

Obviously, there's something a little morbid about these living and working arrangements and it's starting to weigh heavily on Kate's conscience to the point where she begins to resent her comfortable life. Before long, she's handing out $20 bills to the homeless and snapping at her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) for casting longing glances at a pair of $200 jeans. Meanwhile, Kate makes repeated efforts to befriend Andra's two grown granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), in the hopes that they won't view her family as parasites. She needn't bother, though, because both women have problems of their own—Mary is coming off a bad breakup and looking for some rebound action while Rebecca seems trapped in a perpetual funk—and they're also well aware that Grandma Andra isn't exactly the most lovable person anyway.

In a sense, Please Give could be described as an East Coast-based sequel to Holofcener's previous film, Friends with Money, which focused on a set of well-to-do Los Angelenos blessed with sizeable bank accounts. As sharp as that movie was, it painted its targets a little too broadly; the audience's sympathy was clearly directed towards the character with the least amount of disposable income. This time around, Holofcener has crafted her screenplay so that there aren't any clear heroes and villains, just ordinary, mixed-up people. One can easily sympathize with Kate’s guilt complex while also sharing Alex and Abby’s hope that she’ll snap out of it before it consumes their lives. Similarly, it’s possible to admire Rebecca’s unfailing sense of duty to her grandmother, who raised the girls after their mom’s suicide, while also understanding Mary’s lack of desire to spend time with this spiteful woman. (Guilbert deserves credit for never playing Andra as either a figure of pity or as an outlandish caricature of a mean old lady—she’s unapologetically ornery, but possesses a strength of will that helped her bring up her daughter’s children.)

As usual, Holofcener draws terrific performances from her cast, particularly Steele, Hall and, in a welcome surprise, Peet, who does career-best work here. And while it touches on the country’s current concerns about the economy, Please Give wisely refrains from making any grand statements about The Way We Live Now. It’s a low-key slice-of-life story that, in its best moments, feels like real life.