Please Give

Writer-director Nicole Holofcener seems to get better with every film, and now she’s cruising along the well-trodden path of neurotic New Yorker comedy-drama with grace and comely confidence.

It should be pointed out that Holofcener’s previous, more strenuous efforts, “Friends with Money” and “Lovely & Amazing,” were set very specifically in Los Angeles. It should also be pointed out that “Please Give”‘s view of New York is not the most inviting. But in a way that’s also the beauty of it — the understanding that self-absorption knows no geographical boundaries, and so unites us all.

At the center of this nonchalantly moral tale is an urban family contemplating the expansion of their home into the apartment next door, and therefore waiting anxiously for its current tenant to die. Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt play the proprietors of a furniture shop whose wares — also typically acquired from families of the recently deceased — are shown to vary widely in value because of course value itself is widely relative.

To get at that apartment next door, the couple first must feign some kind of neighborliness with the unambiguously dour old lady (Ann Guilbert) who lives there — which also means making the acquaintance of the two adult granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall) she brought up after their mother committed suicide. These two differ quite significantly in disposition, but they each have a special stake in what develops, as does Keener and Platt’s daughter (Sarah Steele), who meanwhile has been enduring an especially awkward adolescent moment.

Unfurling as a series of loosely braided vignettes, the film might seem too breezy under anyone else’s command, but Holofcener battens the proceedings with perceptive specificity. Here, plot matters less than empathy for blessed yet restless lives and compassionate wisdom about how even the best intentions can get messy. It’s a small miracle — of casting, of actorly intuition, of directorial discretion — that these figures become more endearing even as they become less likable. As their lives get more entangled, we see their gestures of generosity beget humiliation, their pangs of conscience succumb to selfishness. We see our loved ones, ourselves.

Holofcener has a knack for the sort of life-slice that can stay with you for days only then to abruptly vanish into the slipstream of emotional memory. The net effect might leave you uncertain if what you’ve seen was insubstantial or utterly essential. Having once meanly quipped that the way to remember Holofcener’s name was to think, “hollow center,” I now acknowledge that the joke — that all-too-familiar ache of emptiness in the middle — is on me. In retrospect, hers seems like just the right way to make a film whose business is asking what it means now to really give of oneself, and what it takes.

 

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