Class, guilt and privilege converge in an unconvincing ‘Please Give’
Nicole Holofcener is becoming the bard of upper middle-class, white ineffectuality. Her last film, Friends With Money, was an astoundingly lame look at useless L. A. women making foolish choices, adrift in their own lives. In her angsty new comedy, Please Give, Holofcener switches the action to New York City, but sticks to the same milieu of clueless privilege, trapping her excellent cast in a lineup of dubious characters whose behavior ranges from merely baffling to downright unpleasant. To make it all feel more weighty, Holofcener tosses in an element of all-purpose white liberal guilt. But like so many other elements in the story, she really doesn’t know how to use it to good effect.
Holofcener’s longtime muse and accomplice, Catherine Keener, again stars. She and the entertaining Oliver Platt play Kate and Alex, a long-married couple who are also business partners in a trendy furniture resale shop in downtown Manhattan. They acquire their stock from the estates of the recently deceased, whose relatives are eager to get rid of all of mom’s or grandma’s old “junk.” Kate buys it for a song, and she and Alex sell it to antiques collectors at a tidy profit.
But Kate is starting to feel queasy about the whole operation; it’s becoming one more thing to feel guilty about for a woman already on a mission to “save the world,” according to her caustic 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). Kate can’t walk down the street without doling out fives and twenties to the neighborhood homeless people. Given to weeping jags over the state of humanity, she keeps trying to find volunteer work, but close encounters with the elderly in a nursing home, or special needs kids in an after-school program make her too sad.
Kate and Alex have also purchased the apartment next door in their swanky building, with the stipulation that the current tenant can stay there for the remainder of her life. That would be 91-year-old Andra (Ann Guilbert, beloved as neighbor Millie on the old Dick Van Dyke TV show), a tough, lonely, mostly housebound old bird who doesn’t mince words and has outlived all her friends.
Kate, of course, feels guilty that her family is just waiting for Andra to die so they can knock out the walls between the two apartments and expand their living space. So she tries to befriend the two granddaughters who come in to care for her. Loyal, patient Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a radiologist who conducts mammogram screenings, visits every day. Her bitchy sister Mary (Amanda Peet), who gives mediocre facials in a skincare spa and is obsessed with tanning, only visits under duress, and makes no secret of her dislike for Granny and her hopes for the old lady’s speedy demise.
But once these prickly characters are in place, Holofcener doesn’t really take them anywhere. Mary’s non-stop vitriol becomes exhausting. Kate’s feeble attempts to act on her random guilt feelings, personally and professionally, are clumsy and ineffectual. (Indeed, the horrible closing scene seems to suggest that getting over her guilt and embracing her privileged status has been the point of Kate’s story arc all along.) When Alex has something specific to feel guilty about (in a less-than-credible subplot), it too amounts to nothing, either in his life or in the film’s plot.
Thematic ideas about consumerism and the indignity of old age surface now and then; there’s irony in the way objects increase in value as they age, while the apparent worth to society of the aging people who own them declines. And there’s a breezy running gag about how everyone in the city is all afire to go upstate to see “the leaves” (that is, the autumnal colors), as if they were some hot Broadway show in a limited run. Holofcener coaxes some nice performances out of her players, but she never digs deeply enough into her themes or characters; she settles for wistfulness over insight. And the facile way she absolves her characters (a sisterly squeeze; a pair of expensive jeans) suggests the filmmakers