Perhaps only New Yorkers can fully appreciate the unique but not uncommon real estate transaction that underlies Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature film Please Give. Successful dealers in trendy midcentury modern furniture, Kate and Alex have leapt at the chance to purchase the apartment next door, allowing them to expand their own… just as soon as that adjoining apartment’s elderly tenant vacates the premises, a process which in places other than Manhattan is known as dying.
This civilized death watch may be at the heart of Kate’s compulsive guilt, or not. Played by Holofcener muse Catherine Keener (who has starred in all four films) with her usual intelligence and razor wit, Kate is both open and judgmental, destructive and compassionate, blind and perceptive, conflicted and utterly believable. Holofcener’s work has always explored a particular strain of modern woman—one who occupies a place in a privileged and finely parsed world, albeit uneasily.
Kate is affluent but ashamed of her affluence. And although her affable husband Alex (Oliver Platt) assures her it is fine, she feels guilty about buying the furniture of dead people and selling it at a steep mark-up in her chic store. She walks around with rolls of cash to hand out to the homeless (or those she perceives to be homeless), while arguing with her teen daughter Abby over the ethical problem of $200 jeans for high schoolers.
She badly wants, as she says, “to give something to someone,” but this is far more difficult than one might suppose. Though she tries to volunteer, at centers for seniors and the mentally disabled, she is so consumed with sorrow at both that she’s rendered incapable of action. When she retreats in tears at the latter, it is a young woman with Down’s syndrome who, in a moment of piercing irony, tries to help Kate.
Meanwhile Andra, the tenant next door, who lives on and on, is as far from a sweet old granny as can be imagined, the kind of woman people describe as being too mean to die. In fact, it is not unlikely that her unremittingly grim and life-negating life view helped drive her daughter to suicide years ago, or so the two teen girls left to her care believe.
These granddaughters, Rebecca and Mary, are now unhappy young women, both beautiful and single, each damaged in her own way. Rebecca, played luminously by the British actor Rebecca Hall, is her grandmother’s dutiful caretaker, a solemn mammogram technician who seems as closed to beauty and joy as her grandmother. Mary, played with relish by Amanda Peet, is a over-tan aesthetician who seems exhilarated by her own truth blurting, particularly when drunk. Her sleek glamor and ruthlessness thrill Abby, who is otherwise convulsed in agonies over her acne and desire for the designer jeans that will magically solve her figure issues.
Please Give is preoccupied with the slippery and thorny subjects of avarice, rationalization, guilt, altruism, entropy and death. In other words, a comedy, and a very funny one at that. The laughs are propelled by the lean dialogue, spiky plot and unapologetic commitment to real and uncuddly characters. Holofcener’s genius and passion is depicting women, and the relationships between them, and Please Give can be seen as a portrait of womanhood at every stage, depicted with a gaze that is unflinching, loving and wry.
These are small films, labors of love, appearing every four or five years, as Holofcener painstakingly hones the script and drums up the financing. No one goes to Abu Dhabi and there is no sex on the beach (although the deed is done on the aesthetician’s table, as well as up against a fireplace mantle). In a just and good world, all the money, publicity and hype that recently surrounded Sex and the City 2 might have gone instead to Please Give. But the world is neither just nor good, and success, money, power and love do not always go to the deserving—tenets which, from the start, have been central to Holofcener’s acutely observed moral universe.