Please Give review

Catherine Keener stars in Nicole Holofcener's latest, Please Give. Michael's been checking it out...

One of the plotlines of Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s gentle drama about charity, family and New York life, resolves with a mother (Catherine Keener) buying her daughter (Sarah Steele) a $200 pair of jeans. This is played with tenderness, with the exchange of gratitude ringing out as the credits roll. Such a sense of the upper middle class economic bubble helps complicate Please Give‘s appeal, as it is, for the most part, an intelligent, witty musing on urban living.

Opening with a peppy montage of mammograms, the film initially focuses on Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a medical assistant who seems slightly at odds with her colleagues and surroundings. She is awkward around her workmates, who all seem obsessed with watching Autumn encroach on upstate forests, but finds solace in caring for her elderly grandmother, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert). However, before long, the film opens up into more ensemble-based territory, as we are introduced to the old lady’s neighbours, the aforementioned mother, Kate, and daughter, Abby, and the plump but charming father, Alex (Oliver Platt, who else?).

Kate and Alex run an antique furniture shop, which they stock with pieces bought from grieving families, essentially fleecing the recently deceased and profiting from tactical price gouging. It is pure capitalism, as is their purchase of their elderly neighbour’s apartment, with the view to expanding their own little kingdom.

Please Give mostly flounders between the two poles of moneyed New York entertainment, half bearing the consumerism and opulence of Sex And The City, and half mounting a neurotic broadside on its educated kooks as seen in the best of Woody Allen. Holofcener seems to pitch for both, offering something accessible, bright, yet intelligent and thought-provoking. At times, this ambition shines through, as the film indulges in intimate humour between the characters, or cheeky asides seek to bring out the absurd elements of city life.

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However, the themes of charity, self-obsession and the ethics of capitalism run through the film with a clunky sort of overtness. While the hypocrisy at the heart of the characters’ lives is highlighted, they are hardly interrogated. Instead, they are given a soft ride, which only serves to frustrate the more socially conscious tendencies. This is partly compounded by the performances, which are mostly warm and pleasant. Oliver Platt couldn’t play a negative character even if he tried, which only serves to undercut his character’s drift towards the conventional middle-aged male narrative of infidelity. 

Likewise, Keener is too sincere a screen presence to bring much contradiction to Kate. When she inappropriately hounds homeless (or homeless-looking, to her embarrassment) people with her generosity, or bursts into uncontrollable tears when faced with the infirm, the drama is on her side, even when the audience isn’t. Once she starts experiencing dissolving, soft-lit visions of the ‘ghosts’ behind her furniture, and starts buying chintz to satisfy a sense of emotional guilt, this gap only gets worse.

This leaves the more interesting roles, such as Hall’s tentative Rebecca or Sarah Steele’s insecure, at times monstrous teenager, a bit lost, as the plot becomes over-stuffed with predictable conflicts, and weak revelations, with Rebecca requiring romance to flourish, and Abby, oddly isolated without friends or relations outside of the family home, pursuing clothes and facials as her solution.

For a 90 minute, short story type of film, Please Give starts to feel too baggy, especially with its subplot involving Rebecca’s sister, Mary (Amanda Peet), a super-bronzed beauty parlour worker who becomes obsessed with an ex’s new girlfriend. 

In this 5th Avenue free-for-all, the film’s most genuine moments, specifically those featuring Guilbert, are almost drowned out. Her Andra is a genuine, disarming character, weak in body, yet stubborn in disposition. While she is victim, like most of Please Give‘s characters, to the film’s melodramatic tendencies, there are at least a number of precious scenes where she nails her creation of a cranky, batty, snarky, weak old woman. It may be a small gift, but it’s something.

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Please Give arrives in UK cinemas today.


3 out of 5