The first images of Nicole Holofcener’s new dramedy, Please Give are of different female breasts being given mammograms. The breasts are anything but perfect. Some of them are old. Some are being squished. Some are being stretched. Some are fat. These images show a part of the human body that is rarely seen in films—the imperfections. We see the breasts as they really are with warts and all and not the air brushed idealized versions of them. This first scene is a typical Holofcener moment that illustrates the characters she creates. The people in her films aren’t perfect, but have both the good and the bad qualities—the imperfections that make us human (illustrated by the imperfections on the breasts). Many of us go to movies to see idealized version of ourselves. We like feeling good about ourselves and most films give the viewer a “narcissistic high” if you will, a feeling that we are nicer, smarter, and more beautiful than we really are. Nicole Holofcener’s films don’t work that way. She shows us people as they really are with all their insecurities, idiosyncrasies, and character flaws. The people in her films are like us or our family or our friends or people we meet. They are real and their nakedness and true selves are shown in all of their moments of pain and glory.
Please Give is about Alex (Oliver Platt) and Kate (played by Catherine Keener, a Holofcener regular), who are both husband and wife and business partners. Kate and Alex own an antique store where they buy furniture cheaply and mark up the prices. They buy the furniture from the “children of dead people,” as Alex says to one of his customers rather bluntly, who are too preoccupied by the loss of their loved ones and unaware that their loved one’s furniture is valuable that they sell their dead parents’ possessions rather cheaply. Kate feels guilty about buying furniture from the grief stricken and feels like she is taking advantage of them. As a way to assuage her guilt she walks around the street with money in her hand doling out 20 dollar bills to the homeless. Kate, played excellently by Catherine Keener is typical of the women Holofcener portrays. Kate is a complex full dimensional character. She doesn’t give charity out of the goodness of her heart, but as a way to feel less guilty for taking advantage of the mourners she buys her furniture from.
Kate also decides to try to do some volunteering to try to help others. There is a great scene in the film where Kate goes to volunteer with people who have Down syndrome. She enters the gym and sees them playing basketball. The people with Down syndrome are happy, yet Kate feels sad around them and she leaves the gym and starts crying in the bathroom and it is a girl with Down syndrome who tries to console Kate instead of the other way around. This scene reveals the kind of character Kate is. She isn’t trying to make the world a better place by helping others who are less fortunate, but rather wants to do good and help others so she can be consoled for doing good as a way to try to remove the deep seated guilt that she feels.
Kate buys a nice table from someone who lost his mother. She buys is for less than 2,000 dollars and sells it to a guy for 5,000 dollars. When walking around New York City, Kate sees that the guy she sold the table to is reselling the table for around 7,000 dollars. When Kate sees this, she realizes that even if she didn’t take advantage (as she sees it) of the grief stricken someone else would.
Kate feels so guilty of being a grave robber that she returns a vase she bought from one of the children of dead people. “This vase turned out to be worth some money, around 700 dollars so I think you should have it back,” she tells the person she bought it from. “Thank you,” he says happily. Then when Kate leaves, the vase accidently falls to the ground and breaks. It seems as if her act of redemption did nothing—instead of at least Kate getting some benefit out of the vase, now no one can.
Kate and Alex also have their only child, Abby (Sarah Steele), a 15 year old worried about the zits on her face. Abby doesn’t share her mother’s concern for the homeless on the street and would rather Kate give her money to buy jeans instead of supporting the homeless. Sarah Steele does a great job as Abby. Ms. Steele makes Abby into a fully developed character that we can sympathize with. We see Abby as both a selfish spoiled teenager, but also realize the pressures she must face in school and that to Abby her looks are everything to her.
Oliver Platt does an excellent job as Alex in one of his most subtle and fully developed characters in quite sometimes. Alex has moments of selfish behavior and lacks the guilt Kate has, but Alex is a man who truly loves his family and Oliver Platt makes sure to bring that love and compassion out of the character.
Kate and Alex buy the apartment of their neighbor, Andra (played by Ann Guilbert, who specializes at playing annoying neighbors), a 91 year old lady. Kate and Alex are waiting for Andra to die to they get knock down Andra’s walls to increase the size of their already spacious apartment. Andra is a blunt, old lady and unfortunately she isn’t given much depth to her. We only really see Andra as a mean, old lady that brags about herself and puts others down. There is one moment in the film where she complements her granddaughter, Rebecca (played deadpan by Rebecca Hall) by telling her that she is dating a handsome boy, but then tells Rebecca that, “he’s so short; but luckily for you he’s short or he would never go for you,” thus undercutting the one time where Andra is saying something remotely flattering.
While Kate, Alex and her daughter are all fully developed characters, the same can’t be said for Andra and her granddaughters. Rebecca comes across as depressed throughout the whole movie and Andra is bordering on the caricature of “bitter old lady” who we see so much of in the movies instead of a real human being. Mary, played with excellent acerbic wit by Amanda Peet fares the best out of the three. Mary works at a spa and seems have no love toward her grandmother (though one can hardly blame her). Mary asks Kate and Alex exactly how they are going to tear down Andra’s apartment and mentions in front of Andra that Andra shouldn’t care what happens to her apartment because she’ll be dead soon anyway.
The plot of Please Give doesn’t really go anywhere, but Holofcener’s films are never about plot anyway. Her films are about the characters, true to life moments, and subtle nuances and struggles to be a good and happy person. Her films aren’t a blistering critique of the human condition and are far from event movies. Holofcener’s movies actually play better on the small screen due to her intimate style and low-key approach. The audience won’t learn anything deep about the world or become engaged in some complex plot; instead the viewer gets to see real people acting out their day to day lives. Holofcener is a much better writer than she is a director. She writes the way people actually talk and the situations and dialogue always feels natural and authentic. Please Give, like all of Holofcener’s films is pleasant. Her films make us feel as if we are watching real people and situations without a need to wrap everything up at the end. Holofcener’s movies, like life, doesn’t have people’s problems all fixed at the end. Some people grow and learn and some don’t. Her excellent ear for everyday banter and authentic dialogue, and her lack of judgment sets Holofcener apart from most of the films that seem to come out these days.
Please Give isn’t ambitious in plot and doesn’t really go anywhere and the characters of Andra and Rebecca could have been fleshed out more, which makes Please Give not as satisfying as Holofcener’s previous two films (Friends With Money and Lovely and Amazing) though it is more confident, less self-conscious and natural than her first film, Walking and Talking. Please Give won’t change your life in anyway, but there are so few films that deal with real and sometimes mundane situations honestly, that seeing a true to life (mostly) film like Please Give is a cinematic rarity worth checking out. I urge you to please give it a try.