Please Give

By Karina Longworth in Festivals, Reviews
Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 9:12 am

After the world premiere Please Give, director Nicole Holofcener and her cast (including Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Catherine Keener, who has starred in each of Holofcener's films) sat on the front edge of the stage at Eccles, legs swinging over the side, for a casual Q & A about the filmmaker's fourth feature. Answering a question about a subplot involving a teenager's acne, Holofcener succinctly summed up the appeal of her entire filmography: "It's so small, but it's the world to us. Just like all of our little problems."


Holofcener's fifteen-year career is an anomalous independent success story. Alternating between highbrow series television (she's directed episodes of Sex and the City and Bored to Death, and Gilmore Girls) and her efforts as writer/director (including Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing and Friends with Money), Holofcener has achieved a kind of autonomy that's incredibly rare for a female filmmaker of her generation (or, really, of any generation). Think of her as a less prolific, estrogen-producing Woody Allen: though her films are not remarkably different from one another in tone, style, structure, and theme, she's creating a body of work charting the evolution of a life, and of a lifestyle. Like Allen, her areas of interest tends to be specific to awfully strict class parameters, but unlike Allen, Holofcener always deals directly with the fine nuances of "comfort," as construct that unavoidably bundles economic status with psychology.

Friends with Money dealt very transparently with the entanglement of wealth and external body image; Please Give is more explicitly about how day-to-day micro-transactions become expressions of internal feeling. It's an exploration of the murky territory in between selfishness and selflessness, self-indulgence and self-hatred.

Keener and Platt play Kate and Alex, a married couple who pillage dead people's apartments for a living, in order to sell their abandoned mid-century modern furniture at a huge markup. Keener feels guilty about what they do; Platt conspicuously doesn't. As the couple wait for their cantankerous 91 year old neighbor to die so that they can buy her apartment and double the living space they share with their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), they navigate a tense acquaintance with the neighbor's granddaughters, introverted mammography technician Rebecca (Hall) and blowsy, overtanned aesthetician Mary (Peet). Various attractions and much laser-sharp neurotic small talk ensues.

They're brought together by a fantasy of New York real estate, but the one thing this group has in common is a suspicion of other people's happiness. For Rebecca, this is embodied by her co-workers, who prattle on and on about going Upstate to "see the leaves." In New York, it requires a certain kind of luxury to drive outside of the city to look at fall foliage; more than that, it's an activity reserved for young families and happy couples. In classic Holofcener style, Rebecca's bitterness is both petty and completely understandable, and just before it solidifies into an impenetrable crust, something gives, restoring the woman's vulnerability.

Holofcener has an unmatched talent for creating daringly, realistically unlikeable female characters, but she always pulls them back from the brink, often with the help of a mawkish catalyst. In Money, it was Jennifer Aniston's "surprise" fat guy love interest; here, it's Keener's encounter with a disabled child who happens to share her daughter's name. Holofcener has been responsible for some of the toughest, most honest material about female anxiety that I've ever seen on screen, but it seems like she always makes final concessions to the viewer who can't stand to watch their own neuroses dissected for two hours unless they can leave with a kernel of hope. Call it The Big Melt; it's Holofcener's biggest weakness.

 Still, there is a boldness to Give's attitude towards the personal implications of spending that has few precedents. Holofcener eschews the standard anti-commercialism of indie film to present the accumulation of wealth and stuff as the complicated moral process it is. Please Give may about-face from Holofcener's unique darkness a little too quickly for my tastes, but I appreciate its celebration of the positive potential of consumerism. Buying can be an important act of love, and Please Give beautifully expresses why it's okay and even important to give that kind of love, and to let yourself receive it.
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