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Director draws from life — intentionally or not

‘Please Give’ continues Holofcener’s intimate style

Sarah Steele is Abby and Catherine Keener her mother in director Nicole Holofcener’s new movie, “Please Give.’’ Sarah Steele is Abby and Catherine Keener her mother in director Nicole Holofcener’s new movie, “Please Give.’’ (Piotr Redlinski/Sony Pictures Classics)
By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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Nicole Holofcener’s movies are intimate ensemble affairs that mix acerbic wit and tenderness. No surprise that she’s often compared to Woody Allen. “We’re both New York Jews,’’ Holofcener deadpans. There is a coincidental family connection: Holofcener’s mother, Carol, is a set designer who worked on many Allen films and later married Allen’s longtime producer, Charles H. Joffe. Holofcener visited the sets growing up, worked as a production assistant, and admits to watching “Manhattan’’ until “blue in the face.’’ But she also counts Mike Leigh, Neil Simon, and Albert Brooks as influences. And author Judy Blume.

“I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I read Judy Blume and I thought, her books are about everyday things and they’re fascinating. I couldn’t put them down. It encouraged me that I could do that. So, thank you, Judy.’’

Holofcener has offered her keenly observed, everyday details in four films: her debut feature, “Walking and Talking’’ (1996), “Lovely & Amazing’’ (2001), “Friends With Money’’ (2006), and her latest, “Please Give,’’ each one delivering Holofceners’s now trademark depictions of contemporary women in all their complexity and contradiction.

In “Please Give,’’ Holofcener’s favorite leading lady, Catherine Keener, is Kate, who owns a vintage furniture store with her husband, Alex (Oliver Platt). They buy ’60s and ’70s-era sofas, tables, and vases from the “children of dead people.’’ As if this isn’t guilt-inducing enough for Kate, they’ve already purchased the apartment next door in their downtown Manhattan building. But the couple and their teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) can’t knock down walls until the current occupant — cranky, elderly Andra (Ann Guilbert) — dies. This makes for awkward relationships with Andra’s mousey granddaughter and caregiver, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and her abrasive, not-so-caring other granddaughter, Mary (Amanda Peet).

Just as she drew on her best friend’s impending marriage for “Walking and Talking,’’ and on relationships with her sister, mother, and adopted African-American stepbrother for “Lovely & Amazing,’’ Holofcener says her closeness with her own grandmother, who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, figures in her latest work.

“I took her to the doctor and to the drugstore. We walked really, really slow down the street. It’s a test of patience and love, I think,’’ says Holofcener, in Boston recently to promote the film. “When she died, I was in charge of her apartment and that was such a moving experience. Not good or bad; it just affected me — what to keep, what to get rid of, what has value. All the presents I bought her that she clearly didn’t like — they were still wrapped in the back of her closet.’’

But Holofcener never set out to write a story about aging, liberal guilt, caregiving, infidelity, the madness of parenting a teenager, or any of the very human conditions that permeate “Please Give.’’

“If I thought I was going to write about all of that, I would probably have been paralyzed. It’s really an enormous thing to bite off,’’ she says. “I liked the apartment situation and I thought that lent itself to a lot of good conflict and comedy, just based on the weirdness of that relationship, so I started from there. I was close to my grandma, I have kids, I was a kid, I have a niece — all the things that fill my head ended up in the script, unplanned.’’

Like all writers who draw on the personal, Holofcener says her movies often have rankled family members. “I have a sister — not a shock — we are very close but very different, so that’s a source of inspiration, much to her chagrin. She’s been a good sport. Some things have been touchy. Even when I’m not writing about her at all, she’s convinced that I am. I wrote a lot about my mom in ‘Lovely & Amazing’ and she was thrilled.’’

But the character in “Please Give’’ that Holofcener most identifies with, she says, is 15- year-old Abby, who fights with her mother about expensive jeans and agonizes over her acne. “I was inspired by my niece and the fights she and my sister have. She is more me than anybody else. The acne problem, that was me. I had really bad acne and it just colors your world for years. I didn’t know, again, that I was going to write about it. But there it is,’’ she says.

Holofcener, 50, found in Keener her onscreen alter ego: a hip, unpretentious, smart, botox- and surgery-free middle-aged woman. (Holofcener says she won’t work with actresses who’ve had cosmetic surgery because “it looks so bad.’’) She says she often writes with Keener in mind “even when I’m not sure it will be her in the end, even though it’s worked out that way and I’m grateful for it. Actors help me write better; if I hear them saying something, I get a better sense of the character.’’ It also helps to have a good friend on the set. “We had an art direction disaster one day and she got up early and was decorating the room with me because she cares that much. And she has really good taste.’’

Besides her mother and stepfather, Holofcener’s show business family includes her father, Lawrence Holofcener, a stage actor and Broadway lyricist. Although Holofcener moved to Santa Monica, Calif., with her mother and sister when she was 12, she returned to New York to study film at Columbia University. She now lives with her 12-year-old twin sons in Venice, Calif.

Between movies, Holofcener makes a living directing for television. Her resume includes four episodes of “Sex and the City,’’ as well as episodes of “Gilmore Girls,’’ “Six Feet Under,’’ and, most recently, “Bored to Death.’’

Her next film will be a departure from the contemporary comic dramas of her four-feature oeuvre. “Friends With Money’’ costar Frances McDormand has optioned one of Laura Lippman’s crime novels and Holofcener will direct the adaptation. “It’s a suspense thriller with good female characters and psychological twists,’’ she says. “It’s going to be a stylized drama, with a bigger budget, and not funny. I’m always tempted to make a joke. But, wrong movie — no jokes here.’’

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