NZIFF ’10: Please Give

nziff ’10: Please Give
Dir. Nicole Holofcener | USA | 2010 | 90 mins.

Like her previous films Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money and Walking and Talking—and like the work of Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman, two filmmakers who dwell on similar themes and characters—Nicole Holofcener’s new comedy features a set of characters living almost in a completely enclosed bubble world where middle-class insulation and privilege breed contempt and a nasty strain of self-hatred that expresses itself through cruelty to those they love. Though they’re not quite as acidic and bitchy as the characters in Lovely and Amazing—and thus lack some of those characters’ charm—there are plenty of laughs to be had here, and the funny moments sit alongside a larger canvas which, even though it might not achieve its goal, seeks to explore bigger themes, namely poverty and liberal Western guilt.

Catherine Keener (Where the Wild Things Are, Synecdoche, New York) plays Kate, a vintage furniture store owner who gets most of her wares from the children of the recently deceased—i.e. old people who have died of (mostly) natural causes. She and her family live down the hall from a blunt, mean-spirited old woman who is looked after by her two granddaughters, played by Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet. Hall has her hair dyed jet-black, and Peet is more tan than usual—both fitting character traits being that the former is somewhat introspective (bordering on brooding) and the latter is superficial and works in a tanning salon.

The film is bitterly funny as it catalogues the ups and downs of this group of people who all pretty much hate one other to varying degrees. Kate’s husband, played by the always excellent Oliver Platt, begins a love affair; her unctuous teenage daughter bemoans the fact that her mother would rather give money to the homeless who live on their street—herein part of the film’s title—than buy her a new pair of jeans; and the travails of the store, including numerous fussy customers and the ins-and-outs of the vintage furniture business, become (morally) almost too much for Kate to bear.

Holofcener has worked in tv—notably directing episodes of Six Feet Under and Sex and the City—and something of a televisual feel seeps into this film, most obviously in its tidy, even pacing. What makes Holofcener’s films such a pleasure is her attention to small details. She has so far written and directed all her films herself, and is thus able to craft characters just the way she wants, down to the tiniest detail. In this film, for example, Kate reads a book by Sarah Vowell—something that adds a nice extra touch to her character; in another, more generic film, it wouldn’t have mattered what she was reading or if the cover was even visible. Despite a somewhat anti-climactic ending, the film has an edge that sets it apart from the morass of films about self-involved, bitter city-dwelling folk—a sense of character that many other films of this type lack.

Please Give will almost certainly be re-released at Rialto and similar cinemas.