Please Give

Catherine Keener pulls off another unlikeable character for writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 11, 2010

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Table and shares: Kate (Catherine Keener, left) and her husband (Oliver Platt) buy furniture from relatives of the deceased low and sell high

Photo by PW Staff

Nobody loves messy, human imperfections quite like writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

Hers is a slender body of work—a scant four features over 14 years, all starring Catherine Keener in various stages of neurotic meltdown—yet Holofcener’s movies quietly devastate, overflowing with cutting human observations and agonizingly awkward moments that most filmmakers would rather leave on the cutting-room floor.

A thousand miles from the rancid, materialist and misogynist chick flicks that tend to dominate the marketplace (he says, bracing himself for Sex and the City 2) Holofcnener’s films favor behavior over plot, working their way towards tiny epiphanies that feel grounded and true to life.

Nothing huge happens in her movies, but everything always changes.

Please Give is Holofcener’s strongest picture since her offhandedly brilliant debut Walking and Talking, and it again stars Catherine Keener in a role that shouldn’t be remotely sympathetic—but as one of the great actresses of our time, Keener conveys the depths of her character’s vulnerability even as she’s saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong-est moment.

Keener’s Kate is a vulture, earning untold wealth in Greenwich Village by buying second-hand ’50s-kitsch furniture from “the children of dead people” and marking it up for hipsters who can afford to shell out $4,000 for an ironic end table. (To illustrate, NPR’s Sarah Vowell shows up as a customer. Only in New York, kids.)

Keener’s husband and business partner, a porcine, jocular Howard Stern addict played quite wonderfully by Oliver Platt, has no qualms about their tomb-raiding, but Kate still aches inside. She overcompensates by tossing $20 bills at homeless people—or sometimes just black people. This is much to the chagrin of her teenage daughter (the deeply moving Sarah Steele), an acne-devastated and overweight teen who wonders why Mom keeps giving money to bums but still won’t buy her those $250 jeans that make her ass look smaller.

Complicating matters is next-door neighbor Andra (played by the Dick Van Dyke Show’s Ann Guilbert in a tour de force of casual cruelty). Kate’s family purchased the 91-year-old lady’s adjoining apartment ages ago, and they’ve got grand renovation plans—the old bag just needs to die, already, so they can get things going. Credit Holofcener for capturing the sociopathic brutality of Manhattan real estate.

Keener’s Kate cashes in on death in every direction, from her home to her livelihood, while doing everything she can to convince herself that, in spite of it all, she’s still a decent person. Cue a flurry of rationalizations, overcompensations and random crying spells. Kate’s desperate attempts at volunteer work end in hilarious and sometimes poignant disaster, as she’s never learned the difference between compassion and pity. It’s a bruisingly honest, deeply unflattering role, and Keener is never less than captivating.

Meanwhile, there’s the matter of Andra’s granddaughters. Rebecca (played with fetching sensitivity and very bad hair by Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s Rebecca Hall) is a dowdy wallflower, devoted to her abusive grandma. Amanda Peet’s Mary isn’t quite so sentimental, cursing and drunk with a bad orange tan.

It’s a little schematic for Holofcener to make the former a radiation technician specializing in mammograms, while the latter is a cosmetologist performing facials. We get it: The “good girl” is looking at X-rays, seeing women on the inside, while the “bad girl” is preoccupied with surfaces and skin.

Then again, there are no true “bad girls” in Holofcener films, just confused and sad ones. I dare say Amanda Peet (despite the ghastly tan) has never been this fetching or vulnerable, falling into a disastrous affair with Platt based almost entirely on disappointment and their shared appreciation of the Howard Stern Show.

Please Give is a tale of awkward compromises and miniscule moments of grace. The final scene is vexing, a would-be gross example of conspicuous consumption that nonetheless feels like it comes from somewhere genuine and altruistic.

Charity begins at home, right?

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Starring: Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt

Running time: 90 minutes

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