What do you do when you know you have more than your share? When your comfortable home is uncomfortably surrounded by those less fortunate? When you have no trouble giving money — as long as you don’t have to give of yourself?

These questions form the center of the crisp, poignant and funny new movie by writer/director Nicole Holofcener.  In Please Give, Kipling’s “white man’s burden”  has evolved into the liberal woman’s guilt.

Catherine Keener plays Kate, a middle-aged New York mom who waffles between being a savvy furniture dealer – she underpays for classic mid-century furniture, and then marks it up 500% at her chic 10th Avenue shop – and a compassionate observer of the little Calcutta that exists right downstairs.  And, while this creates no end of inner debate and angst for Kate, her husband Alex (the always bigger-than-life Oliver Platt) wryly sums it up: “We buy from the children of dead people.”

Making a living as modern-day grave robbers extends beyond the couple’s retail establishment.  They have purchased the apartment next door and plan to break through the wall to create “a master suite with a real closet.”  The only thing that stands in the way of realizing this metropolitan dream-come-true is a tiny, nonagenarian terror named Andra, brilliantly portrayed by Ann Guilbert.  Andra is still in the apartment and she is “still kicking” (and scratching and biting too).

Early into the movie, we meet a small repertory company of characters, including Andra’s two granddaughters – the dewy and long-suffering Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and the radiant but hard-edged Mary (Amanda Peet).  Their vocations are ideally suited to their roles. While they both wear lab coats, Mary works as an aesthetician in a day spa; Rebecca is a kind-hearted radiology technician. Mary aims to make the exterior more attractive; Rebecca strives to uncover what may be hiding deep within. If you haven’t already heard about the opening credits, let me say that the montage of mammograms, set against a lithe yet pithy song by the Roches, may well be worth the price of admission.

The movie’s story could only take place in New York City, where temporary families are constructed and deconstructed on a daily basis, where people prey upon each other, where buying an apartment from the as-yet undead is not just a sound real estate investment but expected and civilized behavior.  You can tell that Holofcener loves New York, but the portrait she creates is grittier than Woody Allen’s and less prettified than Nora Ephron’s.

Holofcener has also given her actors (and her audience) a real gift – genuine, distinctly non-cinematic dialogue, like Alex’s offhand post-dinner observation, “I don’t know if that place is as good as we think it is.”  Or Kate’s logical “I’m not spending $200 on a pair of jeans for my teenage daughter when there are 45 homeless people living on our street.” To which her quick-witted daughter rejoins, “They don’t want jeans.”  And her supporting cast, especially Sarah Steele as Kate and Alex’s acne-stricken daughter, are dead-on.

One of the most interesting themes of the movie is how it portrays women.  There’s a duality that’s dramatized not just in the good sister/bad sister set up of Rebecca and Mary, but also when Andra is paired with a different kind of grandmother.  Lois Smith’s luminous Mrs. Portman enjoys her grandson, her sandwich and the leaves in Vermont – even after her breast cancer diagnosis.  She admits, “I’m just lucky.”  Andra snaps back, “There’s nothing lucky about cancer.”

Kate, meanwhile, is torn between the light and dark of her own personality.  Negotiating with the busy son of a recently deceased furniture owner, she expertly moves in for the kill.  Then, she passes out $20 bills like some modern-day Marie Antoinette.  And finally, she breaks down in tears, unable to even play basketball with the special needs kids she wanted to help but can’t face thanks to her own self-absorption.

Interestingly enough, Holofcener’s smart and satisfying movie has no real beginning, middle or end.  After Andra’s funeral, Rebecca notes, “We’ll probably never see each other again.”  And, that’s all right.  As in real life, in Please Give, paths cross; lives intersect for a time.  We drift apart; we come back together.  We make money; we give it away.  And redemption comes in the end of an ill-advised affair, a valuable vase returned to its rightful owner, or a new pair of designer jeans.  

Catherine Keener’s Kate is the center of the film and you’ll probably recognize her.  At times, she’s well-meaning.  At times, she’s misguided.  At the end of the day, she wants to be noble but she’s really not.  She’s human.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • drpatallen May 20, 2010 at 9:20 am

    This is beautifully crafted review of a film that women will certainly want to see. We are grateful, Alexandra, for your insight and eloquent criticism. We have an opportunity to support films made by women, with women as stars so that we have an ongoing chance to have our lives enriched by stories with meaning. Otherwise blockbuster cartoon movies will take over the cinemas. We all need to take a friend to this movie.