Please Give, the fourth film by writer-director Nicole Holofcener, is one of those movies which uses flawed, and at times, unlikeable characters to try and make moral and philosophical statements. The central couple of the film, played exquisitely by Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt, make their living by buying antique furniture from the recently deceased, and then selling those items at inflated prices. Leave it to the people of New York City to not only keep the couple’s store in business, but to also give them enough profit to buy the apartment next door to theirs.
One problem: Andra (Ann Guilbert), the 90-year-old tenant of that apartment, will not move out. Her granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) have an apartment of their own, but Andra has no desire to move in with them. Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse between the neighbors. Andra knows that Kate (Keener) and Alex (Platt) are waiting for her to die, but she is not the type of woman that will accept being near the end of her time.
Kate and Alex have a 15-year-old daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), who is struggling with familiar adolescent issues. She has pimples that won’t go away, and she isn’t happy with her jeans. Her mother, who feels awfully guilty about the way she makes money, sees more benefit in lending money to the homeless than buying $200 jeans for her daughter.
The best characteristic of Please Give is the authenticity of the characters. One of the ways Holofcener is able to achieve this is through the dedicated portrayal of each character’s profession because, when you think about it, so much of who people are is defined by their profession. Rebecca (Hall), as we learn through one of the more eye-opening credits sequences in recent memory, is a radiology technician who specializes in breast cancer. Her selfish sister Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist and a frequent tanner.
Because Rebecca is the nicer sister, the duty of looking after Andra falls on her shoulders. Between spending her days examining women for cancer and using her off-hours to check up on her ailing grandmother, there is not much light in Rebecca’s life. Her one hope for happiness comes when a recurring patient (Lois Smith) sets up Rebecca with her likeable grandson (Thomas Ian Nicholas).
It can be said that the characters of Please Give are, in some ways, authentic to a fault. This problem takes its most damaging form when we are looking for change in the characters. Since this is a film so intent on mirroring real life, the progress each character makes by the end of the film is very subtle and usually only described in a scene or two at the most.
While this may very well portray how real life actually is, it doesn’t necessarily make for the most affecting film. Each character of the ensemble is, for the most part, treated equally in terms of screen time, which makes it difficult to get involved with the characters. It is much tougher to connect with five characters than it is one or two. By trying to evoke feelings for each one of her characters, Holofcener essentially puts the audience’s entire emotional involvement at risk.
For what it wants to achieve, Please Give is a fairly successful film. It is by no means difficult to sit through and its moments of painful humor really do capture the spontaneity of everyday life and the complexities of generational differences. But what Holofcener’s script achieves in sharp wit, her directorial effort lacks in visual creativity and emotional cohesion.
This is a film that will probably work for people who are looking for stark realism. By no means am I opposed to that style of filmmaking, but I don’t think it should sacrifice the characters arcs either. Each character’s final scene features some type of subtle change. Some my find this effective in the moment, but who is to say that change will last?
Holofcener is obviously trying to imply transformations in her characters, but there is no way to feel completely secure by the end. There is not enough playing out on-screen to convince us that Mary won’t revert back to her stuck-up personality when she wakes up in the morning, or that Kate won’t again neglect her daughter for an anonymous homeless man on the side of the road. Too much is left unanswered or unaddressed.