A sharp give-and-take on life

Rebecca Hall (left) and Amanda Peet portray granddaughters - one nice and the other angry - of a New York nonagenarian.
Rebecca Hall (left) and Amanda Peet portray granddaughters - one nice and the other angry - of a New York nonagenarian.
Posted: May 14, 2010

Some filmmakers make movies that hold up a mirror to nature. Nicole Holofcener makes seriocomedies that hold up a magnifying glass to human nature.

Her latest is Please Give, a movie as generous, stingy, and biting - and memorable - as its six main characters. Holofcener, writer/director of Friends With Money, sorts her leads into two columns, Givers and Takers, then proceeds to detail their give-and-take with a sharp eye and an even sharper ear.

The place is Manhattan, the time is now, and the stakes couldn't be higher for needy New Yorkers who require more emotional and physical space than their cramped apartments allow. Whether in elevators, boutiques, or out on the street walking their dogs, they carom off each other like particles in the supercollider that is New York.

They are two families, with one of those only-in-New-York connections. Kate and Alex (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt), parents of a teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), own a flat on lower Fifth Avenue.

At a steal, they have bought the apartment of their next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), a nonagenarian, with the understanding that she can live there until she dies. Andra has two granddaughters. Mary (Amanda Peet), an aesthetician with a permatan and toxic impatience, is the angry one. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammographer with a reassuring manner, is the nice one.

Kate and Alex are experienced "flippers," with both real estate and furniture: Professionally, they buy modernist furniture for peanuts at estate sales and resell it at extortionate prices at their store. Profiting from those in distress is the primary source of Kate's guilt. And though she is prosperous, Kate denies her daughter its fruits, freely doling out twenties to street people and refusing to indulge her teen in a pair of pricey jeans.

Holofcener is the most Pirandellian of screenwriters. One might call Please Give "Six Characters in Search of a Purpose." Kate's mission to take less and give back more is the film's dominant theme.

Like Kate, the timid Rebecca also sees herself as the one who does for others rather than herself. Both Rebecca and Kate are the caregivers in households where there's a whole lotta taking going on. Kate's laid-back husband and in-your-face daughter test the limits of her generosity, as the bitter Andra and jilted Mary test Rebecca's. There is a difference, as the film shows, between giving to expiate guilt, as Kate does, and giving from the heart, as Rebecca does.

In trying to do good, Kate is not her best self. Wince when she proffers her doggie bag to a fashionably grizzled man she mistakes for a homeless person. Cringe when she volunteers at a school for the developmentally disabled and is overwhelmed by the well-adjusted students who are not like her.

Keener, batting four-for-four in Holofcener films, is a performer who is sympathetic even when the character she plays is not. Keener conveys the struggle to do good and do right with urgency and transparency. She may be denied, but she will not be deterred.

Time after time, Holofcener shows how Kate fails to reconcile her karma with her dogma. The movie slyly dramatizes Rabbi Hillel's paradox: "If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?"

Holofcener works in the Woody Allen/Eric Rohmer mode, structuring her story as a series of seemingly unrelated sketches that, in the end, add up to a fully dimensional group portrait. The performances are superb. This story about people trying to perfect themselves in an imperfect world ends with a scene guaranteed to have filmgoers carom off each other like particles in the supercollider that is the movie theater.

Please Give *** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, with Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, and Sarah Steele. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hour, 30s mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity)

Showing at: Ritz East, Rave Motion Pictures/NJ

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey

at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com.

Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/