Review: Please Give

“Don’t do me any favors.”

The first images you see in Nicole Holofcener’s superb new film Please Give are a series of breasts being prepped for mammograms.  Old and young, full and slight, they are placed, pressed and impacted by the machine before images are taken.  This rather clinical montage shows how these anonymous women’s most intimate parts are managed for the sake of discovering if they have a new lease on life (or not, in some cases).

But it could also represent the actions of Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a married couple whose boutique furniture business revolves around the wholesale purchase of the belongings of recently deceased tenants.  They buy items at cut-rate amounts, then refurbish them to sell to the chic and unaware at exorbitant prices.  Kate and Alex appear to have reasoned out their practices, though Kate is beginning to have some doubts.  Her persistent guilt about the homeless makes her say and do awkward and sometimes embarrassing things that indicate she is headed for an awakening of sorts.

Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), the lab technician handling all those breasts, takes care of her grandmother Andra (Ann Guilbert), a crusty old woman who lives in the apartment next door to Alex and Kate…an apartment they have already purchased and plan to renovate, once their neighbor passes on.  Rebecca and her sister Mary (Amanda Peet) are invited to Alex and Kate’s for a dinner in honor of Andra’s 90th birthday, a show of good-neighbor politics by the couple, whose passing-in-the-hall relationships with Andra and Rebecca have left both sides feeling prickly about the other.  The dinner is also attended by Abby (Sarah Steele), Kate and Alex’s teenage daughter.  Abby is having her own set of crises:  the perfect jeans don’t fit just right, and her post-adolescent face is roiling with acne.

The dynamic between all these people is surprisingly cordial, given that it’s a Holofcener film.  Things that pass for thoughtless are frequently said in front of those impacted by them, and some characters are fairly miserable.  But unlike Friends with Money, a despicable piece of who-cares bonding between miserable haves and one put-upon have-not, Please Give makes you actually sympathize with its characters, and by the end you will likely be very caught up in how they respond to each other.  The film knows how to play with emotions while giving them their due.

After that dinner, Rebecca and Abby relate to each other while comparing notes on parents; Alex begins an affair with Mary;  and Kate dips into some low-level depression that seems prompted by her inability to provide full disclosure about selling the objects of the dead.  She gives homeless people larger amounts of cash and begins seeking out volunteer efforts where she can give of herself.  The problem that keeps cropping up is that she needs to be positive with the afflicted, and Kate can only seem to see the down side of situations.   While funny, this leads to a touching scene where Kate’s sudden but almost undetectable trace of emotion leads to her being asked to leave, and her subsequent breakdown opens the floodgates for the remainder of the film.

Please Give benefits from an expert cast.  Keener, while always wonderful, rarely plays likeable characters.  Here she plays Kate with just the right degrees of subtle humor and sympathy that make us care about her even when saying and doing things that are wince-inducing.  Platt, too, seems to play one character in most films, but his is a much more jovial type than Keener, and that good-natured manner is a huge boon to all the hand-wringing and pointed conversation that takes place.  Amanda Peet’s Mary is a dermatologist, which is convenient since Mary is all surface:  with her fake tan and regular diet of tiny microwave dinners, Mary is definitely the character with the most room for change.  And Sarah Steele is remarkable as Abby, filled with honest teenage spite and frustration, while like her father, she seems most accepting of her position in life.  With youth, however, she has far more room to question people’s behavior, and greater potential to be hurt by it.

Please Give is far and away Nicole Holofcener’s best film to date;  it allows flawed but likable characters to walk around New York City talking until something profound occurs.  And that’s something that no one this side of Woody Allen has mastered.