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Please Give (2010)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I met Nicole Holofcener briefly on the set of HBO’s “Six Feet Under” in 2004. I was visiting a friend there, a writer/story editor for the show, and she was directing an episode he had written, and after introductions I told her how much I liked her movie “Lovely & Amazing.” She quickly dismissed the compliment. Because most compliments are bullshit? Because inuring yourself to compliments is part of inuring yourself to criticism? I got the feeling she thought that no one had actually seen the movie. This was in the days before I seriously looked at box-office numbers and so I had that warped perspective that my milieu was the milieu. To me, “Lovely & Amazing” wasn’t a film with a limited release of 175 theaters around the U.S. It was a film that showed up in Seattle and never went away. Everyone talked about it.

It’s a shame we had this disconnect before I could compliment her on the film’s opening scene. Remember? Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is trying to sell her homemade trinkets to a trinket store and she runs into a former classmate, who seems cool and collected, and she asks what she’s been doing. “I’m a doctor,” the woman says. Michelle thinks the woman is joking and laughs. How could someone be a doctor already? “We’re 36,” the woman says. It’s a brutal scene with which I wholly identified. Peers become professionals, they become parents and adults, and you’re left behind trying to sell crappy gimcracks at some crappy gimcrack store. Life, somehow, has passed you by.

I never saw “Friends with Money,” Holofcener’s 2006 film about this same subject—the divide between friends with success/money and those without—possibly because the reviews were so-so. I wanted to see “Please Give” in the theaters this spring (widest release: 272 theaters) but time slipped away. Plus it looked, you know, a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers. But lately it’s been landing on some top 10 lists so I decided to check it out.

And?

It’s a little precious: a slice-of-life about the vague wants and distractions of solipsistic New Yorkers.

Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) run a mid-century vintage furniture store for people with more money than sense: a table for $5,000, bookcases for $1,400 apiece. Kate acquires these pieces by visiting the homes and condos of the recently deceased and paying off relatives who don’t know the true value (or the true inflated value) of the furniture; who just want it all gone. It’s a ghoulish gig. There’s a sense of waiting for people to die in order to live. Kate and Alex are also waiting for their 91-year-old-neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), to die, so they can combine her condo with their own and make something bigger and better.

Alex is fine with all of this. He’s an unremarkable middle-aged man who listens to Howard Stern and never reads any more—even magazines—but Kate feels increasingly guilty. She feels she’s taking advantage of people. Her guilt manifests itself in giving money—$5 here, $20 there—to panhandlers. At one point she even gives a doggy bag to a black man on the street but he’s simply waiting for a table at a crowded restaurant. Apologies ensue. She exudes the need to be forgiven. Her attempts at volunteering for the less fortunate are equally inept. She pities them. An elderly woman is stooped from rheumatoid arthritis. “Is it painful?” she says. “It looks very painful.” She tries to help kids with learning disabilities but feels so sorry for them she begins to cry. “You have to leave now,” the director of the facility tells her. It’s the best part of the movie.

Their counterparts in the solicitude/stoicism dichotomy are Andra’s granddaughters: Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a passive mammogram technician, who cares too much about Grandma, and Mary (Amanda Peet), an overly tanned spa technician, who cares too little, and who begins an affair—surely one of the more unlikely affairs in movies—with dumpy ol’ Alex. He’s attracted to her, she’s bored. They bond over Howard Stern.

We get some good bits with Grandma—“You gained weight!” she tells Alex, bluntly, in the manner of the aged—and Holofcener reminds us of the unbearable sadness of aging: losing your mobility, your sight, the world shrinking until your one solace are the idiot rhythms of “Entertainment Tonight.” George Clooney is an actor who has it all... This stuff is in the background of her place all the time, and there’s a kind of horror to it. That awful, chummy language about people we don’t know. When Andra dies, one of the six sentences spoken at her funeral is: “She liked watching ‘Entertainment Tonight.’”

In this manner, “Please Give” touches on important themes but then leaves them alone. It’s a slice of life that still manages to feel artificial. Plus there’s nothing driving the story. All of these New Yorkers are as passive as Seattleites. They all feel peripheral.

Let’s ask the dramatist’s question: What do the characters want? Kate and Alex want people to die, and for this Kate wants to be forgiven. Rebecca wants a boyfriend, and winds up with one, but overall she’s not quite there. Who is she? I have no clue. Mary thinks of herself as a straight talker, but her obsession with a clothing clerk turns out, in the final act, to be a pathetic version of stalking. Meanwhile, Kate and Alex’s 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele, in a fine performance), wants a $200 pair of jeans. She’s the most clearly defined character in the film.

—December 12, 2010

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard