Friday, May 21, 2010

Love: Please Give

I'm late to the party when it comes to reviewing writer/director Nicole Holofcener's Please Give.  The critical round table has already assembled, munched on a white-chocolate drizzled popcorn appetizer and eaten half of the entree.  All the comparisons to Woody Allen's 80's dramas have been made, and for me to restate them now would be like asking for someone to look up, notice I don't belong, and inform me that my points were already made.  More succinctly.  By someone else.  Not only that, though, that Allen comparisons don't really cut it. Holofcener's Please Give is like, say, Hannah and Her Sisters, only in that it's a human, New Yorker-centric, ensemble melodrama that revolves around neurotic tendencies and good old fashioned qualities like solid scripts and strong acting.  Please Give isn't Allen or Baumbach or Stillman urban haute bourgeoisie, it's Holofcener dropping into the lives of her characters and giving viewers an appealing, frequently sharply funny, almost literary film.
Please Give, which gives away little in its rather misleading title, centers on the cris-crossing relationships between two offbeat families.  Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are a married couple whose business centers upon the buying of antique furniture from the kids of recently diseased senior citizens.  Kate's got untapped guilt issues and longs for the day when they can tear down the walls between their apartment and the apartment they've purchased next door.  What are they waiting for?  Why, it's current tenant to die, of course.  Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert) is the nasty grandma next door who's watched faithfully by her confused granddaughters Rebecca and Mary (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet).  So Kate deals with the self-esteem issues of her bitter 15-year old daughter and tries to fulfill a need to somehow be a better person.  Rebecca focuses too much of her time on her ungrateful grandmother.  Mary stalks the new girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend.  All of the women look at each other and think the others are better off.  The cast is remarkable, pitch perfect to the point that watching them converse tends to feel voyeuristic.  Keener, who has starred in all of Holofcener's films up to this point, cuts into the film's ethical inquiries and tender core with her usual skill. She's one of those actors who are so good it seems they're really just making a career playing facets of their own personality. She, with the expressive Rebecca Hall, make the one-liners sting and the underlying sadness palpable.

Holofcener has, as per usual, delivered female characters who are fully formed, real people. They're not idealized visions in wardrobes too extravagant for their fictitious incomes or made-up beyond all recognition. They are your friends and relatives. They're imperfect, grounded women with dialogue and motives you can actually believe. You know what? They're also, like real people, sort of hard to really like. They're not satisfied, and they'll tell you so. The fact that the film never seems to really get to the heart of where their mutual issues lie is perhaps its primary drawback. The pressure is clearly on these ladies. The need to be conventionally, photoshopped beautiful and fulfilled torments them. But the structural background isn't 100% there to support these characters as they piss and moan and deadpan their way closer and closer towards reality. Though it offers no real conclusions, the openings created by Please Give are interesting ones. The real tragedy, I suppose, will be that the film will be an ignored blip on the average American woman's radar as media saturation for next week's chick-flick extravaganza: Sex and the City 2 reaches critical mass. Hollywood will continue to assume that female-centric cinema requires a conventional love story and a surplus of sparkle. We'll be cursed with a dozen new pit-of-despair supposed "comedies" starring the dreadful Katherine Heigl.

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