By Don Simpson | June 11, 2010
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Writer: Nicole Holofcener
Starring: Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Marie Guilbert, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Lois Smith
A bitter and jaded old hag, if ever I’ve seen one, Andra (Ann Guilbert) is on the brink of turning 91 at the commencement of Please Give. Andra finds fault with everyone and everything. This is a woman who no longer finds any joy in life. She tells it like she sees it, no matter how brutal her opinions might be. Andra seems resentful that she has lived for so long, though she continues to hold out hope that her ailing body parts will eventually heal (a totally inconceivable notion) at which time she will become mobile and independent once more. No matter how kind and caring people are to Andra, she is consistently ungracious (“Don’t do me any favors!” is a recurring sentiment). Part of Andra’s anger is probably related to her fear of death – symbolized when she turns her back to the stunning autumnal color palate of changing (read: dying) leaves – and who could blame her? Besides, no one wants to have to rely solely upon others for survival…I would be a curmudgeon too if I were Andra!
Andra must begrudgingly rely upon her granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) to take care of her. Andra’s other granddaughter – Rebecca’s sister Mary (Amanda Peet) – is just as brash and insensitive as Andra; she could care less about helping her grandmother. Rebecca is a mammogram technician whose entire life revolves around work and taking care of her grandmother. She is a gentle and kind soul stuck inside a lanky and socially awkward frame. Mary is Rebecca’s opposite in every possible way. She is incredibly selfish and vain (with unnaturally bronzed skin to prove it); she is also a heavy drinker. Mary gives facials at a high-end spa. (No matter how obvious, the career analogy – that Rebecca cares about what is inside a person while Mary only cares about the superficial – works extremely well.) Rebecca and Mary live together, probably due to financial necessity rather than by choice; both are very attractive (Mary more conventionally than Rebecca), but neither has a significant other.
Andra’s next-door neighbors, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), are impatiently waiting for her to die so they can knock down the adjoining walls and double the square-footage of their apartment (which, it seems, is a fantasy of many Manhattanites). Call them what you will (bourgeoisie, white upper-class liberals, etc.) but Kate and Alex live quite comfortably, financially speaking. They run an antique furniture store specializing in furniture from the 1950s; obtaining their stock from estate sales and grandchildren who are oblivious to the true market value of the kitsch. (Kate is shocked to discover that competing vintage furniture dealers buy their products and mark them up for resale in neighboring stores. In other words, Kate and Alex are not at the top of the food chain.) Basically, their entire existence revolves around profiting from the death of old people; or, if you prefer, cashing in on other people’s death. Thus, Kate finds herself practically crippled by privileged, white, liberal, upper-class New York guilt.
To offset some of her guilt, Kate liberally (mind the pun) doles out cash and leftover meals to their neighborhood’s homeless population (or, more accurately, anyone who looks like a homeless person) – a ritual that Kate and Alex’s one doughy teenage daughter who suffers from severe acne, Abby (Sarah Steele), detests (selfishly, Abby would much prefer that Kate use that cash to buy the $200 designer jeans that she has been ogling). Kate also attempts to deal with her guilt by volunteering her time to people in need (elderly, people with Down syndrome), but her pity for the needy renders her completely useless.
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature opens with a prolonged series of breasts (or as Rebecca refers to them, “tubes of potential danger”) of all shapes and sizes flopping onto a mammogram machine. The technique works quite cleverly as a means to desexualize one of the more sexualized and ogled parts of female bodies. Arguably one of the foremost feminist filmmakers of our time, Holofcener’s greatest attribute is that she refuses to define women by their relationships with men. They are not wives or girlfriends of men; Holofcener’s women are independent beings who have their own reasons – good, bad or just plain funny – to justify their actions. For the most part, the males in Holofcener’s films function more as props than as fully fleshed-out characters. For example, in Please Give, the narrative could easily exist without Alex’s character. In general, Holofcener’s characters are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world; some have loftier intensions and higher aspirations (like Kate and Rebecca) while others seem to be more self-centered and concerned about fulfilling their own needs (like Mary and Abby). There is a uniquely discreet charm of Kate, Alex and Abby’s (and to a lesser extent Mary) bourgeoisie nature which makes Please Give an ideal antidote for the bitter taste that was leftover from watching Sex and the City 2.
On a side note: Holofcener’s 1996 debut feature Walking and Talking (still my favorite of her oeuvre) served as my introduction to Catherine Keener (which I saw around the same time as Living in Oblivion – in which Keener also appeared). Keener is also featured in Holofcener’s other two films (Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money), prompting countless critics to refer to Keener as Holofcener’s muse. It also is worth noting that Holofcener (the stepdaughter of Charles H. Joffe) began her cinematic career working on Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (credited as Production Assistant) and Hannah and Her Sisters (credited as Apprentice Film Editor).