Women take charge of the give and take
There are no villains in Nicole Holofcener’s movies. Instead, there are rumpled, recognizable humans, constantly fretting over the line between being a predator and becoming prey. Because her latest, “Please Give,’’ is set in the plush confines of downtown Manhattan, the characters live comfortable lives without ever taking comfort in them. They chip away at themselves with questions: What’s the price of being good? Is it possible to use people altruistically? What, in the end, do we owe others? Can you give of yourself without giving in?
The movie doesn’t tell a story so much as observe from an affectionate distance as its characters dither and forgive, desperate for solace without looking like a sap. “Please Give’’ is a moral comedy that feels at times like one of the late Eric Rohmer’s deceptively breezy miniatures, or a mid-period Woody Allen movie minus the fussiness. Above all, it’s the rare film to be owned by its women, both before the camera and behind it, and its emotional barometer is one of infinitely fine gradations.
As in her previous films (“Walking and Talking,’’ “Lovely & Amazing,’’ “Friends With Money’’), Holofcener relies on her muse, actress Catherine Keener, to shoulder the tale. Keener plays Kate, who lives in SoHo and with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt), runs a successful vintage furniture store. They get their goods from the relatives of the recently deceased — suburbanites anxious to unload mom’s ugly chairs before selling the apartment — and the built-in rapaciousness of her work is pulling Kate apart at the seams. Keener has never looked so harsh and so bereft; it’s as if her wiring were starting to show through her skin.
Kate and Alex live in a high-rise apartment and have bought the adjoining unit from Andra (Ann Guilbert), the elderly woman who still lives there. They want to break through the walls and renovate, but first Andra has to — there’s no other way to put it — die. Kate offers social pleasantries to the old lady but Andra is having none of it. (Guilbert, who long ago played Millie Helper on “The Dick Van Dyke Show,’’ is a dour-faced hoot.) If you’re going to be a vulture, you may as well admit it, and, besides, isn’t that what it takes to live in New York?
That unspoken question — what do you grab for yourself and what’s left over for everyone else? — animates all the characters. Andra has two granddaughters. Rebecca (the glorious British actress Rebecca Hall) is soft-hearted and maybe a little soft-headed, a medical technician whose gentle goodness is a matter of pride. By contrast, Mary (Amanda Peet) is beautiful and ruthless, covering her anxiety with a shell of steel.
That hardness turns Alex on, and it’s attractive as well to his and Kate’s teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), a deep-souled sort wrestling with acute acne and her mother’s lefty hypocrisy. Because she doesn’t yet know who she is, Abby is drawn to both sisters. One offers her hints on how to live, the other on how to survive.
The title sequence of “Please Give,’’ by the way, is a droll shocker: A parade of breasts being manipulated into a mammogram machine. They’re old, young, big, little, desexualized and individualistic, and they immediately announce that this will be different from all those other movies that look at women and see boobs. Holofcener looks at boobs and sees women: the grace that enlivens them and the fears that rattle the cores of their being. Kate has a nervous tic of giving money to homeless people, and while the director presents this as a sly parody of yuppie guilt — the ethical equivalent of emissions trading — we also see the despair at the root of it. The drama of the movie (and it’s so nuanced as to be nearly invisible) is in the balancing of the scales that will allow Kate to live and to breathe.
Or to continue deluding herself. If you come at “Please Give’’ from the wrong angle, the smugly progressive characters may drive you batty, no matter the care with which they’re drawn. This is a movie that uses a $230 pair of jeans for dramatic closure and that never seriously ruffles the little lives it depicts. Holofcener isn’t interested in hurling down judgments, though, and she lets Kate and Alex’s consumerist lifestyle speak for itself. To exist in New York is to constantly strip-mine the past for the present, to tear down what came before and build anew.
So what do you keep? And what do you carry forward? At the end of this rich, maddening movie, everything and nothing has changed. Abby sees her father in a new light (and Steele is able to squeeze many meanings from a single look) and Kate’s spiritual prison cell has a new window. All the characters are in different places by a half step or so, enlivened by the radical idea that charity begins at home.