Nicole Holofcener has made a name for herself as the writer\director of small, piercing independent films centered around very neurotic women. In films like Walking & Talking, Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money, she has shown a perspective and thoughtful voice that unique and relatable. Call her an estrogenized Woody Allen (valid-- she was an apprentice film editor on Allen's Hannah & Her Sisters), but there's always a trademark to her films-- astute writing, sharp acting, and a penchant for never embracing sentiment, even when the films plots seem to go there. She's always been a better writer than director, but the plain understated look to her films suit her subjects-- these are tiny chamber pieces, not big arias. She returns again with Please Give, one of her sharpest, and perhaps her strongest thesis to date. Returning with her muse, the glorious Catherine Keener, the star of all of her films, Holofcener again showcases her immense gifts for writing fully drawn, interesting, bracing characters, and yet there's a melancholy her that's been missing from her previous films-- it's a far more somber film, but harder a downer, since it's enshrined with her quick wit that earns deserved guffaws, if not laugh-out-loud hysterics. That would be unwelcomed in Please Give, as it centers around a group of characters all trying to restore civility in some way, if not in others, than in themselves.
Keener stars as Kate, a middle aged New Yorker (in a land where Manhattan seems fittingly real, not the romanticized Woody Allen one) who runs a furniture store with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt.) The store sells vintage, old-fashioned stuff that Kate and Alex buy off the descendants of the recently passed. Kate and Alex and also looking to expand their apartment, but are just waiting for the mean elderly next door neighbor to die first. Her name is Andra (delightfully played with real sting by Ann Guilbert, best known as Millie in The Dick Van Dyke Show, and Fran Drescher's grandma in The Nanny.) All this pillaging through the possessions of dead people for financial gain is providing quite the guilt trip for Kate. She's an upscale gal, but trying hard to be a good person, evident in her depositing of mad cash to every homeless person on the street (even one's who only look homeless), most the to chagrin of her 15-year old daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), who just wants a pair of jeans. Adding to Kate's anguish are the grand-daughters, and frequent visitors of Andra-- played by Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall. Peet plays Mary, an icy tanning bed frequenter\alcoholic; she's inevitably inherited her grandmother's disdain for everything and shows it off. Hall plays Rebecca, provider and enabler of her grandmother's dying diatribes.
That's the general plot of Please Give, but like in all of Holofcener's work the plot isn't really the point, it's the lived-in feeling that all the actors in the film express so deeply. It's not grand histrionic filmmaking, but quiet and just right. And the subject of liberal guilt is one not really found in films ever, at least not directly. The point of the film is that all these complicated and naturally evolved characters are basically trying to be good people, and we watch them succeed and fail, and that's the point of most people's lives I would assume-- trying hard to be a good person, whatever that means. Of course, it's fun to watch them fail, and Holofcener has always specialized in making awkward, yet real moments work and sting. In Keener's Kate, for example, sometimes her greed takes over her usual business-like politeness. like when picking up furniture for a deceased person, she turns to the daughter of which as asks how much the apartment is. And yet her empathy is true as well, such as when again, trying to be a good person, she breaks down while volunteering for special needs children.
Holofcener nails it when it comes to middle aged anguish, and makes for a biting soft satire of mortality and profit far more successfully than the social class system she was satirizing in Friends with Money. And the performances are truely what always pop in her work. She's always been adept at getting terrific performances out of her cast-- most notably, aside from Keener was Emily Mortimer in Lovely & Amazing-- her nude analysis scene is classic, a tangent but a must-see. Keener, as reliable and capable as ever, gets center stage again, after being hoisted off to the sidelines for Jennifer Aniston's fame in Friends with Money, and Peet is wonderful, always enjoyable as an icy beauty-- it's easily her best performance since the underrated Igby Goes Down. Hall, the Vicky in Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona is understated and lovely. Holofcener doesn't have must interest in her male characters, all six of them that have speaking roles, but it's hardly slumming for Oliver Platt. Please Give, despite an awkward title is probably my favorite film so far in 2010. A-