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Sour charity
Auteur Nicole Holofcener shows diminishing returns

Please Give

Rated:R
Studio:Sony Pictures Classics
Director:Nicole Holofcener
Cast:Catherine Keener, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele
Genre:Comedy
Our Rating:

Please Give doesn’t merely mark writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature: It also happens to be her fourth feature centered around middle-aged, upper-middle-class women who contend with their insecurities. It’s also her fourth consecutive collaboration with leading lady and apparent muse Catherine Keener.

This time around, Keener plays Kate, who owns and runs a Manhattan antiques boutique with husband Alex (Oliver Platt). They often fill their store with cheaply acquired belongings of the recently deceased; better yet, they’re all set to expand their apartment once their elderly neighbor, Andra (Ann Guilbert), passes away.

Andra’s granddaughters – meek Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) and mean Mary (Amanda Peet) – aren’t terribly keen on the idea, while Kate’s own daughter, Abby, isn’t hot on her mom’s guilt-driven charity to the homeless in the face of her steadfast refusal to buy Abby designer jeans.

If one is making a living off of the dead, does pulling a Robin Hood and giving a bit of the lucre back to the poor forgive them? Should one be so eager to put the needs of strangers before those of their loved ones? If not, doesn’t that mean that money can in fact buy love after all?

Those are the questions our six characters sweat over as they consider their morality and mortality, their self-image and self-worth, in tried-and-true Holofcener fashion. As lives lightly intersect and dilemmas grow reasonably awkward, the dialogue and direction skews a bit toward the unlikely at times. (Rebecca’s mammogram technician refers to the breasts she examines on a daily basis as “tubes of potential danger”; in a thudding literal touch, Kate glances over to find a ghost in a chair in their showroom.)

The furniture changes, the tenants change, the leaves even change, and the people
naturally follow suit. Well, maybe not Andra, but Guilbert plays her part to proud, stubborn perfection. And maybe not Mary, whose only act of charity seems to be taking up an affair with the pudgy Alex, and whose sole moment of vulnerability justifies her fixation on looks but fails to excuse her callousness toward Andra.

Hall is good as a young woman trying to open up and avoid the fate of her sister and grandmother alike. Keener is even better as an older woman trying not to shut down under the weight of her liberal guilt. With a single bathroom-stall crying fit, Keener manages to flesh out her character more deeply than the sometimes stage-rash behavior Holofcener demands.

Whereas 2001’s Lovely and Amazing was sincere and 2006’s Friends with Money nimble, Please Give feels less so on both counts. In returning to her New York home turf from the Los Angeles settings of her last couple of movies, Holofcener satisfies her femme-centric niche without playing up much personality, skimping on the wit and warmth of mentor Woody Allen or compatriot Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) and hoping that her ensemble can muster some empathy for a cast of characters as troubled as they are entitled.

To her credit, Holofcener does rely on acute observation over sitcom-level tidiness or the manufactured about-face, but while that approach is admirable, the results aren’t quite as generous as they used to be. Holofcener once – well, twice – gave the audience more to grasp onto than the simple reassurance that their insecurities are not merely their own. But maybe that’s just a West Coast thing.

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