by M. Faust
That the film you are about to see intends to examine female characters openly, humorously, and without illusion is indicated in the sequence that that plays under the credits of Please Give. I won’t describe it because too many people would take it the same way, but it’s a witty opening to a movie that is funny, incisive, and sharply observed, which makes it a must-see during one fo the worst summer movie seasons in memory.
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (Lovely and Amazing, Friends With Money), this is a New York story that deals in universal issues of modern life in ways they could only be explored in Manhattan, a place where people will pay $4,000 for a used dining room table (not even a very big one) and space is a daily issue. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt star (reason enough to see any movie) as Kate and Alex, a couple who run a shop specializing in 1950s furniture. They get their stock primarily from the children of recently deceased New Yorkers who just want to get rid of their parents’ “crap” and have no idea how much it can be sold for. The shop is successful, but that doesn’t help Kate’s conscience. When her teenaged daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) blithely calls her a vulture, it hits home.
Kate feels just as bad every time she sees Andra, the sourpussed nonagenarian who lives in the apartment next to theirs. (You may recognize Ann Morgan Guilbert if you were a fan of The Dick Van Dyke Show, where she played neighbor Millie.) Like all Manhattanites desperate for more living space, Kate and Alex purchased her apartment and lease it back to her. It’s not that they want to Andra to die, but their life will improve when she does. And Kate’s efforts to assuage her guilt by being extra nice to her only mean that she has to spend more time than anyone would want with a woman who apparently lived as long as she has by replacing her blood with vinegar.
Please Give also shares time with Andra’s granddaughters, who have their own life issues. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a radiology technician who performs mammograms, is Kate’s counterpart, guilt-ridden about issues that aren’t her fault. Sister Mary (Amanda Peet) is her opposite, a tanning addict with a drinking problem who doesn’t mind telling the truth as she sees it, no matter how inappropriate.
Please Give may center on its female characters (as have Holofcener’s other films), but don’t write it off as a “chick flick.” (The short answer to that is that Oliver Platt’s character is as well developed as any of the female roles.) What seems to start out as a comedy of modern manners (and a very funny one at that) becomes an investigation into the question that plagues us all, how to live a moral life in a world that seems increasingly to encourage selfishness. Like peak era Woody Allen, she writes strong parts for all of her actors, and while it’s not surprising to see good work from Keener and Platt, it’s a change of pace for Peet, and a calling card for young Sarah Steele as Kate’s growing-pained daughter. It’s Holofcener’s best film to date.
Watch the trailer for Please Give
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