‘Please Give’ revolves around marriage, money & men

Posted: May 14, 2010

In "Please Give," a charity-minded New Yorker (Catherine Keener) hands $20 to a "homeless man" on the street, only to find he's waiting for a table at a nearby restaurant.

Redistribution of wealth turns out to be like appearances - there's more to it than meets the eye.

So learns poor Kate (Keener), a well-meaning woman whose obsession with charity and volunteer work seems to grow from personal unease with her station in life.

She's a successful businesswoman; she and husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a secondhand furniture store. But she has misgivings about the nature of her trade, spotting retro decor in apartments of the recently deceased, and selling it at a markup to hipsters.

Is she a parasite? Kate wonders, just as she wonders whether she should spend $250 on magically slimming jeans for her chubby daughter.

These are the moral issues that stymie and befuddle Kate, and that writer-director Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely and Amazing") plays for laughs that resonate, especially when channeled through Everygal Keener as a sympathetic lead.

"Please Give" is quintessential Holofcener - a loopy, episodic ensemble story of women dealing with marriage, money and men, but it's also her smartest, most disciplined movie to date.

Kate's ghoulish business folds shrewdly into the movie's sneaky, effective invocation of mortality, again reflected in one of Kate's ethical quandaries. She plans to expand her apartment and has already bought the unit next door, and waits patiently for the elderly resident (Ann Morgan Guilbert) to die.

Guilbert gets incredible comic mileage out of what could have been a stock cranky old bag character. There is something real behind her tactless honesty, and she gets a chance to show it, in a wonderful scene wherein she suddenly warms up to a contemporary.

The old woman lives with her sweet, dutiful daughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and the movie broadens to explore their family story, which happily includes Amanda Peet as the prettier, meaner older sister.

Lives intersect and decouple - few are better at mapping mature marriages and their fault lines than Holofcener, who gets fine work here from Platt and Keener. The saga of their deceptively cozy marriage unfolds with the director's trademark amiability, as does the movie, but it doesn't wander about.

When lonely heart Rebecca finally lands a boyfriend, and finally succumbs to constant urging to leave the city, go upstate and "see the leaves," everything comes together, and you see why autumn is the movie's season.

It's the end of the cycle. The trees are about to lose their leaves, and grandma, bless her, is about to lose her furniture.

Produced by Anthony Regman, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, music by Marcelo Zarvos, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

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