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Women Behaving Badly

June 11, 2010
Please Give

L-R: Rebecca Hall, Ann Marie Gilbert, Amanda Peet and Catherine Keener are just four of the women who say horribly inappropriate but brutally honest things in Nicole Holofcener's Please Give.

I have little patience for movies about Upper Manhattan angst (see Solitary Man). But few are as funny, well-written and smart about female anxieties and—get this—the importance of money as Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give.

The latest Holofcener film to explore modern American women and their neuroses (Walking and Talking, Friends With Money), Please Give is less a story than a series of vignettes of very real, very flawed women who communicate as if their ids had been uncorked. When they cross paths, they say horribly inappropriate, brutally honest things but shrug them off with all the politeness expected of enlightened denizens of the East Coast middle/upper class. If it weren’t for the sympathetic piano score and the chorus-of-hugs ending, this could play as vicious satire.

Each female character in Please Give has her signature hang-up. Kate (Catherine Keener, AKA Holofcener’s filmic alter ego) owns a successful vintage furniture store with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), supporting a privileged lifestyle in an apartment on the Upper East Side. Wracked by guilt over her good fortune, she obsessively gives money to the homeless and stays awake at night Googling “volunteer opportunities.” Her 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), is fixated on her unpredictable facial acne. Their next-door neighbor Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) takes care of her 91-year-old grandmother (Ann Morgan Gilbert) and sees herself as a martyr, refusing herself dates, make-up or anything resembling fun, while her over-tanned sister Mary (Amanda Peet) can’t stop stalking the shopgirl who’s seeing her ex-boyfriend. Linking the families together is the ghoulish knowledge that when grandma kicks it, Kate and Alex will buy her apartment, knock down the walls and put in a spectacular master bedroom and bath. Kate feels guilty about that too, of course.

But what makes Please Give so insightful and funny is Holofcener’s sense for humanity’s contradictions. Kate tells herself she feels terrible about capitalizing on her neighbor’s imminent death, but that doesn’t stop her from joking with her husband about ways to kill the old bag. Mary carries herself with the sexual confidence that only someone who looks like Amanda Peet can, but lives in quiet dread of the day that her looks “hit the wall.” Abby wants everyone to think she’s miserable but actually smiles more than anyone else in the film (with the possible exception of Oliver Platt, whose peace-making hubby is also a blissfully amoral philanderer). It doesn’t hurt that the women are played by a group of fine actresses, notably Hall, who is barely recognizable since her turn as an upwardly mobile American priss-ess in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And few actresses can communicate the mix of self-absorption, sympathy, guilt and anxiety that Keener projects in scene after scene.

As committed as Holofcener is to portraying the contradictions and nuances of real life, she is equally indifferent to the principles of satisfactory narrative construction, letting the film drift into a squishy series of embraces, apologies and cry-fests. It’s not clear whether Holofcener is making a statement—that a little bit of human connection absolves these women of their worst excesses—or simply being honest about the way people make themselves feel better about their sins (even if they keep on committing them). Judging by the extended close-ups and the soft lighting, my guess would be that Holofcener is an unapologetic humanist. Which makes the scene where Kate regains her daughter’s trust by buying her a pair of $235 Adriano Goldschmeid jeans particularly gross. Holofcener may be conscious of class distinctions, but that doesn’t mean she’s critical of them.

Best then to dwell on the film’s many beautifully drawn snapshots of flawed humanity in action. Kate, touring a nursing home with the intent of volunteering, walks away more disgusted and depressed than when she walked in. Abby, shopping for jeans, becomes transfixed by the horror of her zits and pops them in the store mirror. Mary, on a rare mission to buy grandma’s groceries, refuses to use coupons. “You’re too good for my coupons?” grandma asks. Mary replies: “They depress me.”

Holofcener is not an exceptional filmmaker nor a great storyteller, but she has something that few other writer-directors possess: a terrific wit that is enhanced, not compromised, by its encounter with credible human relationships. That puts her in the tradition of a particular breed of American comedy that includes Preston Sturges, Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. Like them, she’s a contradiction in terms. She’s a satirical humanist.

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