While an improvement over her last film, Friends With Money (2006), I have to say that I’m not finding Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give quite the cause for jubilation a great many other critics are. I enjoyed it—with some reservations—and I would recommend it as a worthwhile night at the movies. The film deals more in thoughts and people than most other movies you’ll find currently showing. But I’m willing to bet that a few years down the road I’ll be looking up the title to jog my memory as to what the film is about. I think that’s my central problem with Holofcener’s work: Something about it doesn’t quite stick with me.
Holofcener’s heroine (if she is the heroine) is Kate (Catherine Keener), an upscale New Yorker, who, along with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), runs a trendy shop on 10th Avenue where they sell kitschy period furniture to folks who think it’s hip to celebrate their parents’ and grandparents’ utter lack of taste in furniture. Kate and Alex obtain the furniture by descending on the children and grandchildren of the recently deceased in the hopes that the heirs do not appreciate how cool it is to be ironic and live with purposefully tacky furniture.
Is it vulture-like? Oh, yes. And Kate and Alex compound it by buying the apartment next to the rather cramped one they share with their daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), where 90-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert, best known as Millie Helper on The Dick Van Dyke Show from the 1960s) lives. The plan is to wait for Andra to die so they can expand their quarters. Kate feels guilty about this, as she does about everything. The only other person who seems much troubled by it is Andra’s granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Certainly Andra’s other granddaughter Mary (Amanda Peet) isn’t bothered by it, but she lives in open dislike of the admittedly very unlikable old girl.
That’s the setup—and there’s not much in the way of a plot to go with it. The approach is more of a slice-of-life character piece. Oh, things happen. Rebecca finds a boyfriend, Alex has an affair and so on, but none of these things actually propel the film. They are just events that happen during the course of the movie. The largest consistent aspect of the film lies in its depiction of Kate’s astonishing capacity for guilt—and its impact on her and those around her.
Kate redefines the concept of the bleeding heart. She cares so much about everything that she is helpless to do a thing about any of it. Her daughter and husband both drift away from her. Every volunteer situation she attempts fails because she’s too emotional to function. The most bitterly funny moment in the film comes when Kate returns a valuable piece to an heir she feels she cheated. The movie’s depiction of the episode shows not only the futility of Kate’s efforts, but also how they make things just that much worse. The question that arises, however, is one of intent. Just what is Holofcener saying? The fact that the film offers no clear answer makes it both intriguing and slightly frustrating.
Holofcener does offer a hint, though not by any inclusion of additional information about Kate. Instead, it’s something that occurs in connection with Andra’s funeral—a little tidbit that serves as a caution against the idea that what we know from observation is in any way all there is to know about a person or a situation. At moments and in details like this, Please Give comes close to justifying the praise it has received—close, but not entirely. Rated R for language, some sexual content and nudity.