Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The "Please Give" Guilt Trip

We all know somebody like Kate (Catherine Keener), who leads a life of privilege but feels uncomfortable and self-conscious about it, and so overcompensates in other ways. She and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) run a vintage furniture store in Manhattan and acquire their best pieces by buying items from the clueless children of the recently deceased on the cheap. They've also bought the apartment adjacent to their own, currently occupied by a mean, fusty old grump named Andra (Ann Guilbert), with the intent to remodel and merge the two apartments after she dies. Kate feels terribly guilty about these tactics, and so commits spontaneous, awkward acts of charity like giving too generously to homeless panhandlers and offering her leftovers to a man on the street, who it turns out is only waiting for a table at a restaurant. When her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) asks for a pair of $200 jeans, Kate is aghast. Doesn't her daughter know how many poor, needy unfortunates are out there, and that such extravagance would be disrespectful to them?

And then we have Andra's two granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet). Rebecca is the sweet one, an X-ray technician who spends her work days giving women mammograms, as seen in a very funny opening sequence that entirely consists of exposed breasts being plopped on the mammography machine. In the evenings, she frequently looks after her grandmother - running errands, cleaning, and doing other chores for her. Mary, the mean one, only comes around out of obligation, and has a lousy attitude. She frequently fights with Rebecca and throws Andra's crotchety insults right back in her face. Mary's also the pretty one, who works in a spa as a cosmetologist. All three are invited over to Kate and Alex's to help celebrate Andra's birthday, which results in one of the most uncomfortable parties ever conceived for film, but also leads to more meaningful interactions among the neighbors.

Nicole Holofcener is yet another director whose other work I'm not familiar with, but I wish I was. She creates such interesting, well-rounded female characters. They reflect a certain breed of modern New Yorker, perpetual apartment dwellers who are always mindful of what they're eating or buying. The characters' worries may seem trivial at first, but they bring up some interesting questions about how we go about our daily lives, and all the fictions that we perpetuate in the normal course of interacting with one another. Weighed down by social expectations, Kate's inability to reconcile how she lives with the way she thinks she ought to live leaves her frustrated and depressed. She wants to be a good person, but doesn't know how. Catherine Keener is great at playing up those moments where Kate's attempts at charity inevitably backfire on her. She always ends up forlornly repeating apologies, and never seems to run out of things to be sorry for.

The whole cast is very strong, but I especially loved Amanda Peet in this. Her Mary, the mean sister, takes an approach to life that's the complete opposite of Kate. She refuses to be polite and diplomatic just because it's expected of her, and seems to enjoy negativity. When Rebecca chides her for provoking Andra, Mary retorts that Andra is a horrible person and deserves it. And it's true that Andra is pretty horrible, but only because she acts like Mary to a greater extreme. Guilbert and Peet are so sincere in their awfulness, I ended up liking both of their characters anyway. Rebecca Hall does a nice job as the good girl of the bunch, never as easy as it looks. Also, I prefer Oliver Platt in his schlubbier roles, and here he's at his schlubbiest. In fact, everyone in "Please Give" looks refreshingly average, though all the female leads are proven knockouts.

The film's themes were sometimes underlined too heavily. Yes, we all step on each others' toes in order to get ahead. And yes, sometimes it's really the thought that counts. The more awkward situational humor is fine, but there are some scenes that go for bigger laughs and fell flat. Otherwise the script is a lot of fun, full of characters dissecting bits of conventional wisdom and arguing over social protocol. Do sympathy and generosity really mean anything when they come from guilt? Does having money automatically make you more responsible for everyone with less? Why try to force kindness on someone who doesn't want or appreciate it? And is it okay to laugh at the miseries and misfortunes of others?

In this case, sure. "Please Give" is a comedy, a very mild, low key, and well observed one that gives the viewer a lot to chew over. Most of the characters are terrible people, but well meaning and likable nonetheless. Despite the heaviness of some of the issues, the tone is never glum, and the dialogue is never didactic or patronizing. There's even a happy ending. And though the title may seem to indicate otherwise, I promise you won't come out of this film feeling obligated to commit any acts of charity. But you might feel a little differently about those that do.

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