Movie review: Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, starring Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall (with trailer video)

Nicole Holofcener's female-driven films (Lovely and Amazing, Walking and Talking, Friends with Money) revolve around issues of class, beauty, friendship and materialism — and Please Give is no different. The movie follows Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt), a happily married couple who make a fortune buying antique furniture on the cheap from the relatives of dead people, refurbishing the pieces and selling them for many times the original value. In short, they're basically conning grieving families, which isn't the noblest of professions.


There's also the fact that the couple recently bought the apartment of their grumpy, 91-year-old next door neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert, aka Millie Helper from the Dick Van Dyke Show if you can believe that) and plan to break down the walls and expand their own digs after she dies. This causes a problem for Kate, and her liberal guilt starts getting out of hand. She tries to do nice things to prove that she isn't waiting for the old woman to die (which she is), like throwing the woman a small 91st birthday party and inviting her two granddaughters, but her good deed only makes for an extremely awkward situation.[image-1]


The granddaughters Rebecca and Mary (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet, pictured right) make up the other half of the story. Mary, gloriously played by Peet as an unrepentant bitch, is extremely brash and openly resents her grandmother. Rebecca is almost the exact opposite; she’s defined by her work (performing mammograms) and caring for her grandmother, which barely leaves time for making friends. Both women have a hard time taking care of Andra, who finds fault with nearly everything they do for her.


Holofcener has a knack for writing real characters; sometimes they’re despicable, but then sometimes we sympathize with them. At first we roll our eyes at Kate handing out $20 bills out to the homeless people around her building. Later — in an emotionally devastating moment of weakness — we see that she’s just naive and innocent, unable to process the harsher realities of life. In another scene Andra utters a line that illuminates the fact that she's always been a sad and bitter woman, and the traits are not a side effect of her aging. Even Mary, with all her tough-girl armor, has moments of weakness.


What makes Please Give so refreshing is that it takes notions of guilt, kindness and greed, and spins them on their head. Kate's need to help others makes life worse for her and her family. Is giving out of depression and guilt really giving, or is it just pity? After all, the fact that Andra’s apartment has been paid for by Kate and Alex is a great thing in general when you think about it. Does it really matter that the reason behind this act is selfish? Most of the acts of giving in the film are not made out of love but obligation and guilt, with the only true act of giving in the film occurring over the most blazingly materialistic thing possible. But that doesn't make it any less than a wonderful and truly satisfying moment.


Holofcener is great at posing questions like these, but she wisely doesn’t try to answer them. The director wants the audience to meditate on them. Take it away, folks.


In such a miserably bad year for movies it's nice to know there are still some good ones out there not being dumped straight into the Video on Demand market. Please Give is a film about four New York women that feels messy and real. It’s a shame that such a rich film will fly under the radar, but the fact is that this film's total box office profit will not approach 1 percent of Sex and the City 2's.

That's just disheartening.

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