Please Give (2010) dir. Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet
By Alan Bacchus
Please Give is one of those ensemble character films digging deep into the lives and problems ordinary people who could be your friends and neighbours. In this case director Holofcener paints a portrait of a group of middle class Manhattanites and their interrelated domestic problems not that far removed from any of us slightly neurotic self-analytical reasonably secure yuppie movie goers.
This isn’t the stuff of high drama, or high stakes, instead the appreciation and enjoyment of the picture relies on the audience’s ability to fall in love with Holofcener’s characters and identify with their moral dilemmas.
Holofcener centres on Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) a couple who run a used furniture business in NYC, and who ply their trade off the remnants of elderly persons who have died and thus have furniture to unload. One of Kate’s goals is to expand into the neighbouring unit which is occupied by one of the types of elderly women who she chases for merchandise. Though Kate is respectful and honest, she does harbour some guilt for ethical dalliances, which fills her with a need to ‘give back’ (hence the title). Whether it’s giving change to homeless men on the streets or becoming a volunteer caregiver to mentally challenged kids Kate needs some cleansing.
Her husband Alex doesn’t really help. He’s charming but self-involved and lacking an emotional attachment to his wife. So it’s no surprise when he picks up an affair with Mary (Amanda Peet) the shallow tan-orexic daughter of his elderly neighbour. Mary’s sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is going through her own very mild emotional crisis having to take care of her elderly grandmother and manage the superiority complex of her sister. These moral complications are all held internally within the characters without the expected outbursts, confrontations, or dramatic reversals of fortune.
Holofcener applies a palpable sense of American middleclass urban realism, like a female Alexander Payne film. Holofcener’s film is unfortunately not nearly as funny. Without satire, absurdity, parody, or slapstick the laughs are subdued greatly, instead I found myself ‘kinda smiling’ at situations that were mildly light hearted without producing actual laughter. Does that count as funny? I dunno, but other critics did.
While there’s nothing false, forced or contrived my appreciation of Please Give is as boisterous as the gentle arc of its characters. The very slight emotional journey Kate/Alex/Rebecca et al go through is perfectly summarized in the metaphor of Kate’s teenaged daughter’s search for the perfect pair of jeans. After going through the picture complaining about being fat and not fitting into the jeans she wants, in the end Abby’s pulls herself into a snug new pair of pants. She is blissful and content. The closure of these characters will not light any fires, but we feel a mildly warm glow of content.