Nicole Holofcener’s new film “Please Give” – if you don’t know about this director and her unique films, it’s time you learned — explores a collection of contradictory characters living in Manhattan. There’s Rebecca Hall, an ultrasound tech who is fiercely devoted to her mean and nasty grandmother (Anna Morgan Guilbert.) She seems like a good person, a person driven by ideals rather than appetites, but everyone around her finds her terribly hard to befriend. (Hall is much better here than in “The Town” though I’m afraid if Ben Affleck tried to hit on this character in a laundromat, he’d get nowhere.) Their grandmother raised her and her sister, Amanda Peet, after their mother committed suicide. But while Hall feels obligated to do her 90 year old grandmother’s shopping and laundry, Peet seems to think the best way to show her gratitude is to be just as mean and nasty as her grandmother is. She reflects her desperation to be loved by looking perfect(and engaging in ill-advised affairs), but is rude and self-centered and hardly loveable.
Next door live Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, and their teenage daughter Sarah Steele. They’ve purchased the Guilbert’s apartment with plans to remodel and expand their own into it, but of course must wait for the old hag to die first. Such a move might look indecorous, but only in a certain light; Keener and Platt own an antiques shop, which naturally means their making their living picking over the left-behinds of dead people. There’s an inherent ethical dilemma of their line of work…should they appraise the furniture before buying it? Would that be doing a service for the recently bereaved, or just complicating their lives? In a terribly funny sequence, one seller tries to tell Keener about the antique (and very valuable) table she’s eyeing: “It’s a table…oval-shaped…wood…it’s just a table.”
Buying the grandmother’s apartment actually seems like a step in the right direction, if you can offer a fair price to the living for what they’ll no longer need when they’re dead, where’s the harm?) Platt is too cheerfully glib to be bothered, but Keener embodies the upscale New Yorker who has found a way to do well in the world, but is disturbed the ethical implications of doing well in the world. And her daughter is at that age when she’s trying to figure out her place on the social ladder, and what her pimply skin has to do with that, can’t understand why her mother would give $20 to a homeless man but won’t buy her $200 jeans.
“Please Give” moves at an unforced pace, like the actors are being given time to explore their characters even as the camera rolls. It is tonally precise, more interested in careful observation than dramatic arcs or quotable moments. At leas, 90% of it is. There’s an adultery subplot that just feels completely off and out of place – like a tuba tooting away in the middle of a string quartet. It almost serves as a counterpoint, its ugliness and obviousness highlighting the grace and subtlety of everything else going on. Almost.
But there’s enough wonderful, quiet, but warm and affectionate moments in “Please Give” to tip the scales away from its flaws. This is not Noah Baumbach’s look at upper middle class guilt and dysfunction. This is much kinder, and more empathetic. Fitting, as empathy, in its various forms and complications, is really what “Please Give” is about.