Please Give is, sadly, a rarity: A movie with a mostly-female cast that focuses on realistic characters, not Louboutin-wearing "cougars" or some Successful Career Gals Who Can't Win At Love. The characters aren't always likable, but critics loved the film.
The major theme of the movie, which opens today, is guilt. Kate (Catherine Keener) feels guilty about everything, from owning a successful business where she buys furniture from estate sales and sells it at a profit to rich New Yorkers, to having a nice apartment that she'll expand once her elderly neighbor dies. Kate regularly gives homeless people $20 bills, refuses to buy her surly teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) $200 designer jeans, and attempts to give a man her doggie bag on the street, before realizing he's just a bad dresser, not homeless.
Kate struggles with her desire to be charitable to her cantankerous 91-year-old neighbor Grandma Andra (Ann Guilbert), which is accompanied by Kate's greedy hope that Andra will die soon so she can use the apartment she's purchased from her. Similarly, Andra's two granddaughters have different attitudes. Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a mammography technician, is devoted to her grandmother, while Mary (Amanda Peet) is mean and self-absorbed. She winds up having a fling with Kate's husband Alex (Oliver Platt), who then has to deal with his own guilt.
Several critics compared the film to Woody Allen's early films, and all praised writer/director Nicole Holofcener for "administering a stiff antidote to the toxic women's movie." The entire cast gives strong performances, particularly Keener, who has appeared in all of her films. Please Gives's female characters range from lovably flawed to totally irritating in the film, but Holofcener's goal is to show real, relatable characters, not "idealized types and aspirational figures we can take pleasure in or laugh at in all their plastic unreality."
First, the trailer. Then below, the reviews.
Kate is a close relative of the complicated women who regularly populate Holofcener's smart, articulate, female-centric movies - women previously played by Keener in the filmmaker's Walking and Talking (1996); Lovely & Amazing (2001); and Friends With Money (2006). Indeed, with Keener's unique ability to portray characters who are simultaneously blunt (and even abrasive) but also soft and vulnerable, the actress has become the embodiment of a Holofcener woman. More than that, with their shared characteristics of sex, age, motherhood, and brunet hair, Keener has become Holofcener's artistic alter ego. In Please Give, the sharp-eyed filmmaker sends her vibrant representative out into the world to explore what it means for a woman to be lucky and still feel itchy. The report has the resonant ring of truth.
Holofcener's filmmaking ambitions are not great in the typical sense. She's more like the slow and steady poker player quietly stacking up chips in the corner. In her case, the chips are performances. Every actress (and Platt, just about the only male character) gets multiple opportunities to shine in character. If this were a Woody Allen movie, there would be twice as many big names - but you'd only remember the performances of a couple of them. Here not only Keener and Peet, but Hall, Guilbert and Steele are lovely and, in their own way, amazing. But what makes Please Give work is the even hand playing these chips. For each of her biting insights Holofcener offers a counterpoint suggesting we are all worthy of compassion and yes, a little giving.
I'm as susceptible as the next two-faced feminist to a big, shiny, escapist chick flick. But honestly, girls, haven't the pickings been pitifully slim since - well, since The Devil Wears Prada? From the extended shopping trip of Sex and the City to the finger-wagging self-help manual that was He's Just Not That Into You, we've been ripped off, patronized to a pulp and left to stew in that very bad guilty pleasure, Valentine's Day. Enough's enough - or would be if SATC2 weren't hovering in the wings, dangling Manolos.
Enter Nicole Holofcener, and not for the first time, to administer a stiff antidote to the toxic women's movie. A born provocateur, this willfully independent filmmaker makes smart comedies - Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money - for smart females who don't admire or recognize themselves in the earth mothers and giddy shopaholics who people the studio comedies ostensibly made to measure for the modern woman.
Not that Holofcener is in the role-model business. The women in her movies, honed to a beautifully sharp point by her muse and alter ego Catherine Keener, range from hand-wringing neurotics to mad bitches on a tear. Holofcener is unafraid to show us at our bedraggled worst.
Though it may seem at first that Please Give divides people between the selfish and the guilty, with a few normal folks around the edges, that does not turn out to be the case. This is a film that focuses on the tiny moments of connection and consolation that sustain us in a hard-edged world because they are all we have. "My movies," Holofcener said in an interview, "are a series of small moments that build incrementally to ... a bigger small moment." In her skilled hands, that is saying quite a lot.
Few American filmmakers create female characters as realistically funny, attractively imperfect and flat-out annoying as does Ms. Holofcener, whose features include "Friends With Money" and "Lovely & Amazing." You may not love them, but you recognize their charms and frailties, their fears and hopes. They may remind you of your friends, your sisters or even yourself, which makes them attractive and sometimes off-putting, an unusual, complicated mix. We don't necessarily or only go to the movies to see mirror versions of ourselves: we also want (or think we do) better, kinder, nobler, prettier and thinner images, idealized types and aspirational figures we can take pleasure in or laugh at in all their plastic unreality. The female characters in Ms. Holofcener's films don't live in those movies: they watch them.
Generationally, Abby, Mary and Andra embody the ages of woman - youth, adulthood and old age - a sort of variation on Gail Sheehy's "Passages." But because they're so unmodulated, barely saying a kind word among them, they become tough to take. (Ms. Peet, nonetheless, keeps you watching and engaged.) The appeal of Ms. Holofcener's films, which are visually unmemorable, rests almost entirely in her characters, so the lack of shading among these three throws the story off balance. Rebecca lacks a similar modulation until she meets a guy, Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas). Men might not make women happy here, but left to their own devices, women tend only to make one another unhappy. The more you get to know these women, the less time you want to spend with them - they're so full of complaint that it feels as if Ms. Holofcener were worried about making them false, turning them into movie characters.
I saw the film several week's ago and the performance that has stayed with me is the one of Sarah Steele as Kate and Alex's teenage daughter Abby. Abby is miserable. She has a face full of acne and her mother is oblivious to her pain. And the thing about Steele is that you actually can feel Abby's pain and desperation. Your heart just breaks for her when she comes to dinner with a pair of underwear on her head because she has a huge zit on her face. I had remembered Steele from her wonderful performance as Tea Leoni's daughter in Spanglish. In that film she also struggled with her mother and spent the movie dealing with body issues. This young woman has created two of the most richly defined teenage girls on camera. She's as good as America Ferrara was in Real Women Have Curves. What I admire about Holofcener is that she's not afraid to make her characters unlikeable. Her films are about real people, people you might see on the street, or people you might know and quite frankly there are a lot of unlikeable and miserable people out there.
Everyone in this ensemble is top-notch. The gently melancholy Hall is exceptional, Steele captures the complexity of adolescence and Platt is wonderfully likable. Keener gives her most multi-faceted performance in a career of strong roles.
Sometimes - and far too rarely - a film will hit all the right notes, with sharp, original dialogue, brilliant casting and an absorbing story. So caught up in its spell, you dread seeing the credits roll. Please Give is that movie.