Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review - Please Give

The worst thing about Please Give is the feeling we're left with as the closing credits roll, when we realise it might be another four or five years before we see another Nicole Holofcener film. Since making her directorial debut in 1997, Holofcener has worked at a steady pace and the infrequency of her films has made them all the more valuable. The director's latest film contains all of the attributes we've missed since 2006's Friends With Money; the film is another delicate mix of comedy and drama, written with insight and wit, and performed expertly by a well-chosen cast. Please Give develops a subject that was already touched upon in Friends With Money, the guilt of wealthy liberals, which is risky territory for any filmmaker to tread into. After all, having a bunch of affluent characters bemoaning their lot is hardly likely to win the audience's sympathy, but Holofcener negotiates that hurdle by ensuring all of her characters are flawed and interesting, and that the themes of the story, if not the milieu, are commonplace enough to be relatable.

The fact that we empathise with the central characters in Please Give is even more surprising given the nature of their occupation. Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are vultures. The couple runs a New York furniture store stocked with items bought cheaply from homes of the recently deceased that they can sell at a considerable profit. Even at home, the couple are waiting for death, as they keep a close eye on their 90 year-old neighbour Andra (Ann Guilbert), whose apartment they plan on buying and renovating as soon as she has passed on. While Alex seems to take all of this in his stride, Kate is crippled with guilt and she tries every tactic to assuage those feelings. She offers to run errands for the doddery but acid-tongued Andra, she gives $20 handouts to beggars in the street – much to her daughter's chagrin – and she volunteers at centres for the elderly and disabled, but these approaches fail to exorcise the ghosts that have begun appearing in her store. Keener, who has appeared in every one of Holofcener's films, plays Kate with her usual understatement and acuity, making her a plausibly complicated figure who's just trying to do the best she can but isn't sure how to go about it.

As ever with Holofcener's films, there are a variety of characters surrounding the main narrative, all of whom are well-developed and beset with their own issues. Andra's two granddaughters Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and Mary (Amanda Peet, giving her best performance) couldn't be more different. Rebecca is a shy, caring nurse in a mammogram clinic (prompting a startling opening sequence) whereas Mary is a brash, perma-tanned beautician with a cruel streak. There's also Abbey (Sarah Steele), Kate and Alex's daughter, who suffers from extreme insecurities about her acne and her weight, and all of these characters remain individually intriguing throughout, with Holofcener juggling her various strands beautifully. Everyone in the film is afforded the same respect by the writer/director, and each character is shown to have multiple layers that only reveal themselves in subtle ways throughout the picture. We find out towards the end just how damaged Peet's Mary is from a broken relationship, while Guilbert's superb performance gives us a hint of the fragility and vulnerability lurking under Andra's brusque manner, and Steele perfectly encapsulates the anxiety of a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood.

Holofcener allows these characters to drive the film. She doesn't really do plot, instead giving us a collection of scenes in which our understanding of the story comes through the dialogue and the characters' reactions to one another. The themes of guilt, empathy and family frustration are dealt with in a sharp and subtle manner, and the director maintains a lively, edgy tone throughout, bringing her film in at a brisk ninety minutes with hardly a moment feeling wasted. Holofcener served her apprenticeship on Woody Allen films in the 1980's, and her work bears the traces of his best work in that period, recalling films like Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanours. I'm tempted to wish that Holofcener would develop a work ethic comparable to Allen's, so we wouldn't have such a long period between her features, but then perhaps the films wouldn't be as finely crafted and satisfying as her work so consistently is.