Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review: "Please Give"

The people we meet in "Please Give" are almost uniformly unpleasant in some way or another. But they hide their meanness behind a veneer of beneficence that is so dear to them, they actually believe they're nice.

Take Kate, more or less the main character, played by Catherine Keener. She's middle-aged, successful, with a husband and teen daughter. Kate literally cannot pass a homeless person on the Manhattan street without giving them money -- her need to be generous is so consuming that on occasion she mistakenly offers cash to regular people minding their own business.

See, Kate is not attached so much to giving as the feeling of superiority she derives from helping total strangers. For her, pity is a like a drug.

Perhaps it's the guilt she feels from the business in which she and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) are partners. They buy old furniture from the children of old people who have died, and then resell it at a considerable markup as vintage treasures.

They're essentially upscale ambulance chasers, cheating the bereaved who don't know what they've got.

In fact, Alex and Kate have bought the apartment next door to theirs from Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a sour-pussed 91-year-old, with the intention of knocking through the walls to expand whenever the old lady kicks off. They act nice to Andra, offering to make trips to the drugstore for her. But everyone, including Andra, knows they're just counting the days until they can finally have their master suite.

Andra's granddaughters are Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet), who live together in quiet conflict. Mary is a cosmetologist who doesn't believe in hiding her antipathy toward her grandmother, who has the elderly habit of saying incredibly hateful or racist things.

Andra may indeed be a nasty old bitch, but Mary has a few decades' head start.

Rebecca, on the other hand, is sweet to her core, even if she's a bit distant to those around her. Rebecca works as a radiology assistant, spending her days squishing women's boobs into the scanning machine. She shares such intimacy with her patients, Rebecca finds little zeal for it in her own life.

Kate and Alex have a 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), an awkward kid with a terrible acne problem and a lust for a $235 pair of jeans. Kate's generosity to strangers is galling to Abby, who at one point snatches a $20 bill out of a homeless man's hand, furious that her mother is more giving to a street person than her own daughter.

"Please Give" is written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, who's previously made three other movies with Keener, including "Lovely & Amazing" and "Friends with Money." Like her other works, it's a highly personal film about women and their relationships, their flaws and complexities.

I was thoroughly engaged the entire time I spent with this terrific cast, who deliver sensitive and brave performances. But I kept feeling the movie pushing me away, as if I did not belong inside the circle of people I was observing.

It's hard to say exactly what the film is about. There's an exploration of the New York City mindset, in which people seem to be in a constant, unspoken competition with each other, scrapping for the biggest apartment with the nicest things in it -- and not necessarily even things they like, just stuff that other people will think is nice.

Mostly, though, the unstated theme touches on how even when people offer a hand to others, they're sometimes still being selfish. I just wish "Please Give" could have been a little more generous with itself.

2.5 stars out of four

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