REVIEW: Strong Performances, Superb Direction Lift Please Give
Nicole Holofcener has made only four movies in the course of her approximate 15-year directing career, but that could be because each movie is really two in one: There's the picture right in front of you, the one you actually watch, which can often feel like a clutch of orphan vignettes wandering around in search of some organizing principle. And then there's the way that shambling mosaic reforms itself in your mind minutes, hours or days afterward.
You think you've buttoned up the characters' lives and laid them to rest, only to find yourself making unbidden, random observations about them as you're fixing a sandwich or flossing your teeth: Why did that character talk to her mother that way, and why did her mother let her? That girl was so lovely -- why were her social skills so lame? Two hundred dollars for a pair of jeans? That's nuts! Holofcener writes, and helps to shape on-screen, characters we often don't even like, and what do we do? We invite them home with us. Talk about a soft touch.
Holofcener's latest, Please Give, may have the softest touch of all her movies: It's perhaps less polished, and less biting, than her 2006 effort Friends with Money, but it's ultimately earthier and far more moving. That picture -- like Holofcener's superb, immensely tender 2002 Lovely and Amazing -- was set in Los Angeles. Please Give, on the other hand, is not just set in New York; it's pure New York, so frighteningly, maddeningly endearingly New York that I hope it doesn't completely scare off people who don't live here. (I don't believe it will.)
Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play Kate and Alex, longtime residents of a Manhattan apartment building (it appears to be one of the stately older buildings along lower Fifth Avenue) who run a furniture store specializing in mid-century modern, a style of furniture so cool that it doesn't even need a noun for a name, just a compound adjective. They buy the stuff, cheap, from families who want to unload the goods of their recently deceased relatives, fast. Then they put it in their store at a markup of 200 or 300 percent, give or take.
If you're anything like me, you're probably going to want to hate Kate and Alex; if you're anything like me, you probably won't be able to. The apartment Kate and Alex live in is nice enough, though not luxurious. They share it with their pouty teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who's going through a pudgy, awkward stage. The plot of Please Give, inasmuch as it has one, details the way these characters' lives intertwine -- possibly only temporarily -- with those of two almost-neighbors, the granddaughters of the sour old woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert) who lives next door. The older granddaughter, Mary (Amanda Peet), is a perpetually tan, perpetually shallow skin-care technician, the kind of person who can call herself a "skin-care technician" with a straight face. Her sister, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), is another sort of technician altogether: She works in radiology, administering mammograms all day, every day. Rebecca is far more patient, and far kinder, than her older sister is. But she's also much more socially awkward, to the point where she makes you worry about how she'll get along in the world. When Kate runs into Rebecca in the building's elevator and makes the idle, passively friendly remark, "It's hot outside today," Rebecca glances at her, with a blank, unreadable expression that's clearly shyness, and responds matter-of-factly, "I work inside."
That's one hell of a conversation-stopper, yet it's typical of the way Holofcener develops scenes between characters. The people in her movies communicate in a kind of semaphore, where much of what they really mean to say is jammed into the awkward spaces between words. Holofcener's film-building approach -- her movies sometimes feel more "layered" than "made" -- is the equivalent of dashing around with a small mirror, holding it up to the weird little things people say and do everyday. We learn things about her characters just by watching them: Kate, as a reasonably affluent New Yorker, knows she ought to be giving something back, and so she makes several failed efforts at volunteer work. She bursts into tears, for example, as she watches a group of perfectly cheerful retarded adults playing basketball; she can't seem to make the distinction between pity and compassion. And at one point she tries to give a totally groovy-looking older black guy her restaurant leftovers, believing he's homeless. Guilty, as so many of us often are, of looking without seeing, she's simply failed to register the laid-back chic of his jauntily tied neckscarf and old-school layered sweaters.
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