Movie Review: Please Give
By Matthew Huntley
May 10, 2010
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for telling stories that strike an uncomfortable nerve. Her movies aren’t always easy to watch, but that’s probably her intention. At least they make us think.
Please Give is Holofcener’s first feature since Friends with Money and both films revolve around morally ambiguous characters and awkward social situations. The people in these movies are reprehensible on many levels, but Holofcener looks at them through truthful eyes, and that makes their flaws and virtues less discernible. They speak their minds and act on impulses, and even though such behavior isn’t always appropriate, it can sometimes be admirable. A running question throughout the movie is why can’t people just speak the truth? Why, indeed. Holofcener seems to suggest it’s our holding back from the truth that causes pain.
Like many people in real life, the characters in Please Give are searching for meaning and comfort, whether it’s the unloading of guilt, sexual release or beautifying themselves on the surface. Most of them are sad, miserable and struggle from day to day. We condemn them for this because none of them really have it that bad. We’re also angry because we see a part of ourselves in them. Their words and thoughts are often detestable, but don’t we all talk (or at least think) like that sometimes?
In an upper middle class section of Manhattan, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a middle-aged married couple. Their daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), is embarrassed and self-conscious about her body, but what teenager isn’t? Kate and Alex run an antique furniture store and acquire their stock from the children of dead people, although Kate is starting to think such a practice is wrong, which explains why she suddenly feels the need to volunteer at various organizations.
Living next door is a 91-year-old widow named Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), who’s loud, angry and blunt. When Andra dies, Kate and Alex get her apartment and it’s obvious they’re counting down the days.
They’re not the only ones. Andra is cared for by her two granddaughters - the pleasant and devoted Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), who gives mammograms all day; and Mary (Amanda Peet), who’s just as mean and cynical as her grandmother, but in younger form. Mary is very attractive, but her self-esteem is so low she masks it with artificial tans and alcohol.
Throughout this short and funny parable, Holofcener develops her characters within a certain level of reality. Aside from an out-of-place and extraneous affair, which feels squeezed in simply for dramatic effect, we believe all the dialogue and situations could really happen. We may even feel like we’ve lived them from time to time. It may seem like Holofcener despises her characters or holds them in contempt, but I think her agenda is to teach them (and us) about the value of kindness and humility while simultaneously exposing us to the dangers of self-indulgence and presumption. It’s a blatant lesson that’s been taught on film before, but that’s not to say it isn’t necessary (or entertaining).
The movie is full of scenes that suggest we ought to be ashamed of how little we examine the world in front of us and how quick we are to pass judgment. Take, for instance, when Kate offers a black man her leftovers on the street. It turns out the man is simply waiting for a table. This isn’t necessarily Kate’s fault - her intentions were noble - but we can’t blame the man if he doesn’t forgive her right away. Holofcener doesn’t let this play out as sitcom-level humor, but as an uncomfortable situation we’d never want to find ourselves in. It’s more hard-hitting that way. We feel just as bad when Kate and Abby fight over jeans in the store; or when Mary is confronted by her ex-boyfriend’s new lover.
As depressing and sad as this movie often is, Holofcener manages to find the humor in it all. It becomes revelatory and bold the way it hopes we can learn from our selfish ways and eventually reach out to others - not because we feel guilty or want to make ourselves feel better, but because it’s the right thing to do.
The actors are finely cast and understand that privileged people often feel uneasy around the less fortunate, be it the homeless, mentally retarded, senior citizens or people with disease. That’s not a sin; it’s human nature. They play it straight instead of melodramatic. Amanda Peet is especially good and has two indelible shots where she must act with no dialogue. She’s able to convey her emotions through her facial expressions alone and it’s quite powerful.
Please Give is far from perfect and I wish it ran longer to really deal with all of its characters and their uncertainties. It only skims the surface, like the pilot of a long-running TV series. There’s so much more I wanted to know about these people and their suspicions about themselves and others. As much as we feel we know them, there’s more we don’t know. The movie also wraps itself up too nicely in a scene that feels overtly artificial.
Still, the movie had me asking a lot of important questions. How many of us really give out of the inherent kindness of our hearts? Do we do it just because we want to sleep at night or because that’s how we really feel? How many of us think improving ourselves on the outside will fix our insecurities on the inside? Ultimately, Holofcener seems to think we’re more selfish than altruistic (she’s probably right), but at least she thinks we also strive to be better. Whether or not we become better is something else, and unfortunately the movie doesn’t allot enough time for us to find out if these characters achieve that goal.