I tend to avoid filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener because their films look so smarmy and pretentious. You can practically smell the stink of privilege and arrogance wafting off them. Like people who use both hands to grab your knee and gush about this art installation they just saw or quote articles they just read on Slate as if they’ve possessed the information for years. People who scoff at SUVs and explain how green they are because they switched to an organic shampoo. The smug fucks who harp on our government’s failures to aid third world countries and then transport half their remaining plate of organic butternut squash ravioli home in a styrofoam container to throw it out there instead. But this is where I did Nicole Holofcener a grievous disservice, as she clearly hates them just as much as I do. Please Give is nothing more than a ribald rip on the cultured class without ever seeming preachy or heavy handed. If anything, Holofcener might have given her film a little too much free reign, as it sort of drifts listlessly along a flimsy plot like the amusement park ride where a car follows a fixed track. Still with unexpectedly strong performances, an effervescent wit, and a scathing indictment of the “haves,” Holofcener proves that not all coffeehouse artistry has to be frothy and bitter.
Kate (Catherine Keener) runs a high-end eclectic furniture shop with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt). Think a garage sale for people who have too many cars to fit in their garages. All of the merchandise is purchased at estate sales from the busy relatives of people who died. Kate’s filled with this overwhelming compulsion to do for others, by giving money or food, but out of some sort of belief that this is what you’re supposed to do rather than an altruistic goodness. Alex is kind of a bumbling goof, aloof and silly, who doesn’t read books anymore but watches trash TV. They have a daughter Abby (Sarah Steele), entitled without coming off as sweet-sixteen spoiled, imperfect without feeling like a punching bag. They’ve bought the apartment of their elderly neighbor Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) so they can expand their own apartment when she dies. Andra’s charmingly blunt, not in some sort of cutesy sassy grandma way but because she’s a Golden Girl who’s been around so long she’s tarnished. She’s cared for by her granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a meek technician who performs mammograms. Andra’s scorned by her other granddaughter Mary (Amanda Peet), a bitchy spa dermatologist drinking herself through life.
Most newbie filmmakers might have felt compelled to beat you in the face with the vulturic greed and symbolism, but Holofcener acknowledges it and lets it ride. It’s the difference between a master chef who has to explain every complex layer of their seven layer cake and the one who has the confidence to just let someone taste it and know. Holofcener lets her characters drift together and come apart so organically, interacting beautifully and naturally. Every fight, every fuck, every conversation comes out of moments that make so much perfect sense the film practically feels unstructured, but never in a sloppy or disorganized way. Moments of humor that would be shoved in your face in a more conventional film are played for their harmonic beauty. Everything — from the feisty grandma to the miserable daughter — would normally come off as a cliché in anything else, but Holofcener manages to play everything just slightly left of center to wonderful results.
With a cast that runs the gamut of ages, Holofcener is able to nail down why it sucks at every age. We’ve got the teen daughter who hates the way she looks, but for once cast with an actress who actually looks and acts like an imperfect and wonderful fucking teenager. We’ve got people in their twenties trying to find a loving relationship in a world where it’s become almost impossible to date. We’ve got middle-aged people trying to do something with their lives and find purpose. We’ve got the elderly, pissed off because they have to rely on others for things they want to still do for themselves. To encapsulate just one of these age groups often eludes filmmakers. To actually hit all of them effortlessly is ludicrously astounding. And on top of that, she’s got the fucking ovaries to pull off an anti-New York film set in New York. Instead of treating the Big Apple like the supreme manna many of her ilk insist upon, she’s content with pointing out all the bruising and brown spots. It’s mean-spirited without being cruel or petty, and it’s kind of nice.
The acting was thoroughly unexpected. Some of these actors are practically required reading for anyone making an independent film, and some seem like you’ve never seen them before. Catherine Keener normally plays dour and snippy; she’s kind of the headmistress on being a skinny brunette bitch of a certain age. But her Kate is kind of an expansion on the mother in Where the Wild Things Are. She’s not sunshine and rainbows, but it’s definitely the softer side of Sears. I love Oliver Platt, unabashedly and unrelentingly, and while he normally plays shifty, here it’s a totally different side of the coin. He’s still a sneak and a scumball, but he’s a lovable scumball. Rebecca Hall’s been in so many movies, but I don’t remember her. After this, I’m kind of in love with her. Her Rebecca is a quiet mouse who’d get trampled in other films until she squeaks shrilly, but in this she’s allowed to be angry and loving and mean without ever seeming nasty. They save that for Amanda Peet, who’s like what you WANT Sex and the City to be like. She’s an airbrushed centerfold version of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The supporting cast is a treasure hunt: Josh Pais, Sarah Vowell, Jason Mantzoukas (the Amazing Steve in Splinterheads — the only good part of that movie), especially the double-take Thomas Ian Nicholas (old whatzisface from American Pie and Rookie of the Year) who was perfect as Rebecca’s short love interest.
But all my love goes to the youngest and the oldest. Ann Morgan Guilbert just made my top five awesome old people in movies list. I want to make her have awkward wrinkly sex with Burgess Meredith in Grumpy Old Men in the hopes that a miracle baby will be born. She steals every scene. There’s never any sort of winking wise old fox beneath her nightgown. She’s mean, and crotchety, and direct. It’s a wonderful performance because it’s an actual fucking old person. In a just world, Hollywood would see Sarah Steele’s Abby and cast all future teens from this mold. She’s pudgy, she’s got blemishes all over her face, her hair’s a mess, and she talks shit to her mom. She’s the most natural teen I’ve ever seen, and that includes documentaries set in high schools.
The only downside to Please Give is that it runs dangerously close to being a non-narrative piece. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I suppose. With so much layering of character, I wanted just a little more substance. Still, Holofcener has shut my mouth and proven me completely wrong. It makes me want to check out Lovely & Amazing and Friends With Money to see if she’s just as strong in her early efforts. I was pretty sure Please Give was going to be another empty confection served up from a Starbucks display case to unwitting dupes, but it had much more going on than I gave it credit for.