Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Sarah Steele, Rebecca Hall. Ann Guilbert
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Behind the Scenes of Please Give
A Nicole Holofcener film isn't for everyone, a truth supported by the fact that all of her feature films (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money and now Please Give) have been critically praised arthouse films with strong, conflicted female characters and a willingness to lay bare the not always so attractive quirks of being fully human.
As a writer/director, Holofcener manages to celebrate the wondrous humanity of her characters in a way reminiscent of the very best of Woody Allen. With Please Give, Holofcener plants us squarely amidst the lives of two families whose existence is intertwined by that unique wonder we call Manhattan real estate.
This is not to suggest, as some critics have put forth, that Please Give will appeal only to native New Yorkers who "get" the film's central plot device. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Please Give is not "about" New York City real estate and its story will resonate with anyone who has struggled with giving, self-image, relationships, family, prosperity and exactly what defines "enough."
Have I left anyone out?
Kate (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are antique brokers whose very existence depends largely upon the tragic circumstances of others. This dependence exists not just in their professional lives, but their personal lives as the couple, along with their teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele, Spanglish), has bought the unit next to their own in a Manhattan apartment building with the ever so slight catch that they must wait until its 91-year-old tenant, Ann (Andra Guilbert), dies to claim the unit and expand their dwelling.
I would love to tell you with any degree of certainty what Please Give is about, but to do so would be nearly impossible given Holofcener's steadfast refusal to paint her characters and stories in any paint-by-numbers fashion. While her films may not always completely gel, as in Friends With Money, it is nearly impossible to not always respect Holofcener's uniquely crafted and wondrously rich characterizations and her ability to cast them nearly perfectly.
It would be simple to craft an interesting and funny story out of the details already presented here, but Holofcener's refusal to paint-by-numbers results in vibrantly realized characters prosper because they feel so deeply, authentically real and comfortable even as they sometimes do rather appalling things.
It's funny enough to think about this couple and their teenaged daughter waiting out the death of their neighbor in order to feed their own material growth, but Please Give takes the story even further inside their lives. Kate lives a life of ridiculously awkward inner conflict that causes her to give incessantly and with sometimes inappropriate results as when she offers a meal to an older African-American man outside a restaurant who responds with an irritated "I'm waiting for a table."
This is the world in which Kate lives...she gives and she takes, she gives and she takes. Kate tries to give of her time, but her own fragile nature makes such service more about her own needs than those of the people she would serve. Yet, in the hands of an actress as fine as Catherine Keener Kate is neither a guilt-ridden do-gooder nor an apathetic faux philanthropist with more money than sense. Keener's wonderfully drawn out portrayal makes one believe that Kate is driven as much by both her sincere need to give to others as she is those hilariously quirky personality flaws that lead her to sometimes not make the greatest decisions in giving. Please Give would completely collapse cinematically if Keener could not pull off this balance, but pull it off she does with results that resonate emotionally and intellectually.
While Keener's Kate is clearly the centerpiece of Please Give, the complexity of the world in which she lives is what makes the film work so incredibly well.
Oliver Platt is understated with the perfect blend of vulnerability and friendliness as Alex, Kate's nowhere near as guilt-ridden spouse whose not so innocent flirtations with one of Andra's two granddaughters make for a powerful study on the notion of the give and take in relationships. Similarly, Sarah Steele is a delight as the teenage daughter who grows tired of her mother's giving while her primary longing, for a $200 pair of jeans, goes unfulfilled.
One of the things that Holofcener does better than most screenwriters working today is to portray fatally flawed characters with just enough vulnerability that it becomes impossible to not actually care for them. This has never been more in evidence than with Andra and her two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a shy mammography technician and arguably the film's most genuinely "good" person, and Mary (Amanda Peet), a deliciously bitchy spa worker who quietly battles Kate for the affections of both Alex and Abby and, at least briefly, manages to win.
Ann Guilbert avoids going over-the-top as the rather mean-spirited 91-year-old and instead paints a picture of aged bitterness that one senses is the result of a lifetime of disappointed giving. On the other hand, Rebecca Hall is intimate and gentle as Rebecca, a seemingly plain young woman who lives with an underlying longing that casts a long shadow in the apartment she shares with Amanda Peet's Andra-to-be portrayal of Mary.
Please Give is not without its flaws, most notably that Holofcener's refusal to define her characters occasionally leads to plot points and character features that feel less substantial than they ought to feel. This seldom occurs with Kate, but is more an issue with the film's secondary players.
Mark White's production design gives the film a sense of "family" that works well with the concept of giving intertwined within the relationships, while Yaron Orbach's camera work complements the entire scenario quite nicely. The original score of Marcelo Zarvos nicely mixes the film's deeply human and lightly humorous touches, while costumer Ane Crabtree captures nicely the individual strengths and weaknesses of each character.
Easily Holofcener's most satisfying film outside of the astounding Lovely & Amazing, Please Give isn't a film that is easily defined and for that reason alone it may be more difficult for a wider audience to embrace. Perhaps a rather distant cousin to the recent The Joneses but with a much deeper intimacy going on, Please Give is about the people who give, the people who don't give and how we finally manage to connect with one another.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic