Hope everyone is having a great holiday season! Late December means a flood of great movies, so I’ll probably have a crush of reviews to get through in the next couple weeks. I’ll try and pump them out as fast as I can, but I’m also gearing up for the fourth annual EMO (Ethan’s Makeshift Oscar) awards, which will be unveiled sometime in early January (time and date of the ceremony is still TBA). So stay patient, there’s a lot of good material on its way. To start things off, let’s catch up with an overlooked indie gem that I just caught up with the other day.
I love Catherine Keener. Can we just get that out of the way to begin? “Being John Malkovich,” “Capote,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Into the Wild,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” hell, even “Death to Smoochy” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Doesn’t matter what you put her in, odds are she’s going to be the most human, realistic character in the movie. In an industry where being a woman generally means being a bimbo, a sage old fairy godmother or going batshit insane (i.e. Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”) to get yourself noticed, Keener dares to be normal. You know someone just like her – maybe it’s your neighbor, your teacher, your mother even. There is something about her that just exudes familiarity.
This quality makes her a perfect partner for writer/director Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends with Money”), who is establishing a reputation for her humanist, black-humor-laden tragicomedies. And while Keener remains a standout in “Please Give,” Holofcener has here assembled a whole ensemble of perfectly cast actors around her, from Oliver Platt to Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Ann Guilbert and Sarah Steele.
The characters of “Please Give” form a fairly straightforward range of unpleasantness, from the sweet, mousy nurse Rebecca (and when was the last time that the stunningly beautiful Hall got to be the “plain” girl? oh wait, it was when she was supposedly second fiddle to Scarlett Johansson TWICE IN A ROW, in “The Prestige” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” WTF is wrong with Hollywood?) to the crotchety, egocentric (I’m trying to find a better description than “Bitchpants McCrabby,” but it’s not coming) Andra (Guilbert), the beyond-old grandmother of Rebecca and her cancer-tanned sister Mary (Peet). Andra’s next-door neighbors, Kate and Alex (Keener and Platt), have bought the old bird’s apartment in the hopes of claiming another couple inches in the WWI-era battlefield that is New York City housing. Of course, not the kind of people to force nonagenarians out of their homes, Kate and Alex have graciously decided to hold off on their renovations until Andra dies.
You can see where this starts getting awkward, though. But wait, there’s more! Kate and Alex run an antique furniture store, specializing in mid-century pieces which they acquire by, yes, going around to the houses and apartments of recently deceased geezers and buying the stuff off their haggard children. While Alex appears to have mostly come to terms with this macabre line of business, Kate’s conscience weighs a little more heavily on her; she routinely gives away cash to the local homeless (a tendency which irks her rebellious teenage daughter Abby, played with appropriate mood swings and passive-aggressiveness by Steele) and attempts to volunteer at several charities, but is frequently turned away because she’s simply too much of a downer.
Kate and Alex try to stave off the guilt of their apartment siege by running errands for Andra, a kindness not particularly appreciated by the old goat. Rebecca similarly puts much of her effort into caring for her grandmother, while Mary is of the view that Andra is simply not a nice lady, will not be particularly missed and just doesn’t deserve the kind of attention Rebecca gives her. All around, it’s one of those extraordinarily uncomfortable social situations that comes up all the time in everyday life. A scene in which Kate and Alex invite Andra and her granddaughters over for a birthday dinner just about reaches the pinnacle of awkward interaction when a boozed-up Mary presses Kate to describe the details of her plan for renovation.
Lest you think watching this film will stray too close to reliving your last excruciating family get-together (and for many of you, that suffering may still be ongoing), don’t worry too much – for this outing, Holofcener has erred mostly on the comedy side of tragicomedy, although as a fair warning it is still a mostly black sense of humor. Peet carries the humorous side of things with the greatest aplomb, her wickedly deadpan delivery right at home with Holofcener’s wit, just as it was with Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue on “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
There’s not much of a “point,” if you’re looking for one – with “Please Give,” all you have is a certain situation presented (here, the advancing age of one crabby old lady), and Holofcener proceeds to show us how different people react to the guilt and responsibilities inherent in such an experience. In a nutshell, people just try to do the best they can do – but that can be a widely variable metric.
Now available on DVD.
Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars