Please Give: movie review

‘Please Give’ offers a Woody Allen-style comedy about guilt and self-absorption.

Movies about the travails of the comfortably middle-class often make us ask: Why should we care about the unhappiness of the well-to-do? It’s a dumb complaint, of course. For one thing, the well-to-do have just as much of a right to be miserable as anybody else, and their woes can be every bit as interesting. To take an extreme example, who would not wish to wallow in the miseries of a Henry James or a Jane Austen character?

This complaint acquires some credence, however, when misery gives way to whininess, as it sometimes does, in, say, the relentlessly comfy/urban/middle-class movies of Woody Allen, or, to get to the matter at hand, “Please Give,” written and directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose movies often strike me as Woody Allen-ish in the least interesting of ways.

Married couple Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) own a spacious New York apartment and run an antique furniture/home accessories store – i.e., they buy up at bargain prices the holdings of the recently deceased and then mark them way up. They have also purchased their neighboring apartment with the understanding that its tenant, Andra (feisty Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played Millie on “The Dick Van Dyke” show), can live there until she passes away. Since the snippy Andra is seemingly indestructible, Kate and Alex are placed in the uncomfortable position of being perpetual deathwatchers.

Andra’s sweet-tempered granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a radiology technician, visits her frequently, while Rebecca’s abrasive sister Mary (Amanda Peet), a facialist recently dumped by her ex, can’t abide Grandma.

Holofcener shuttles back and forth between these people and crisscrosses their stories. It’s all mildly enjoyable without ever amounting to much. The mundane matter-of-factness is supposed to be “realistic,” but unexciting is not necessarily synonymous with true-to-life. In almost every instance, Holofcener veers away from any opportunity to deepen the material.

She doesn’t do much, for example, with Kate’s guilt over living a privileged life while being surrounded by the homeless. This is potentially the film’s most interesting aspect but its consequences are treated sitcom style. Kate blithely hands out $20 bills to vagrants on the street.

She also volunteers to help children with Down syndrome and then cries because she can’t cope. (In a nice touch, the children comfort her.) Kate’s daughter (Sarah Steele), meanwhile, wants her parents to buy her $200 jeans and can’t believe Mom is tossing money away in the street. Plagued with acne, she’s going through junior-miss meltdown at the same time her father is going through a midlife crisis. In the film’s least believable subplot, he hooks up on the sly with Mary, who has been practically stalking her ex’s girlfriend, for more than just a facial.

Keener is often best playing tough cookies, so it takes a while to get used to her crumbled cookie here. But Kate’s guilt doesn’t run very deep, Alex’s philandering is whimsical, Mary’s Brillo pad personality is unwavering, and so on. It’s a bit like watching a tape loop of endlessly repeating vignettes.

Only Rebecca Hall comes through with a genuineness that rises above Holofcener’s doodlings. Her scenes with Guilbert resonate because, in the end, Rebecca is the only character in the movie who seems to care about anything other than his or her own – take your pick – bank account, complexion, weight, guilt. In this company, she’s practically a saint. Grade: C+ (Rated R for language, some sexual content, and nudity.)

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