New York’s the location for this ‘slice of life’ movie, although it could be any urban setting. There’s nothing particularly Noo Yawk about the characters, and unusually for films shot in the Big Apple, the city itself does not feature heavily.
A mistake, perhaps, for this movie needs something more than it delivers – a lot more. Slice-of-life comedy/dramas are a dime a dozen, and the problem with most of them, or at least the majority of the ones I’ve seen in recent years, is that the slices they offer, while ‘realistic’, are not very interesting. Such is the case with Please Give.
The story centres on Kate (Catherine Keener), who lives in a tasteful apartment with husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele). The couple make a good living buying up furniture on the cheap from deceased estates, which they then sell at vastly marked up prices from their upmarket Manhattan second-hand furniture store. Kate is burdened by guilt, partly because of the predatory nature of their business, and partly because she is struggling to reconcile her comfortable lifestyle with the poverty she encounters on the street.
It further weighs on her conscience that she and Alex own the apartment next door and are planning on knocking down walls to incorporate it with their own as soon as the resident tenant, the elderly and cranky Andra (Ann Guilbert), dies. The old girl lives with her granddaughters, the reserved and dutiful Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and self-centred, coarsely spoken but brutally honest Mary (Amanda Peet). When a tentative social relationship develops between the trio and their landlords next door, complications arise – not very compelling or dramatically purposeful ones, unfortunately.
Kate’s niggling guilt sets her on a mission of redemption. She routinely doles out cash to down-and-outs (and in one of the few comedic moments of the movie that really hits the spot, to a black guy in a restaurant queue whom she mistakes for a down-and-outer). She volunteers to work with the disabled, but is shown the door when she is overwhelmed with sympathy for their plight and ends up upsetting her intended beneficiaries, as well as herself. There’s more, but you get the idea.
Some of this stuff is mildly amusing, but Kate is not an endearing character. Her middle-class angst should be something with which we readily identify, but seems trivial, somehow, and her stumbling efforts to assuage it through her Good Samaritan acts inspire eye-rolling rather than admiration, and are not humorous enough to get us laughing with her, at her, or at all!
Catherine Keener is not at fault in her playing of Kate – she does a terrific job with some rather ordinary material. In fact, all the acting performances are excellent.
Some insight into where this movie fails may be gained by considering its opening – an extended montage of mammograms. Quirky, yes, the footage is ‘real’, and it transpires that one of the characters works at the mammogram clinic, but otherwise… the point is? You’d expect there to be a pretty major one – something to do with breast cancer, perhaps? Well, on consulting the production notes, I came across the following explanation from writer/director Nicole Holofcener:
Mammograms are like life: potentially tragic but really funny looking. You’re stripped semi-naked, divested of dignity, shivering with cold and filled with dread. It’s ridiculous but very necessary. With ‘Please Give’ I wanted to illustrate these kind of contradictory moments that make us human.
Well OK, but how is the audience supposed to pick this up from the film? Here lies a fundamental problem with Holofcener’s movie – she knows what she’s on about, but her deeper meanings are not well communicated, so the work comes across as slight. Unless we are given some signposts, we have no access to the poetic musings that inform the script. Instead, we are left with some pretty dull dialogue coming from mostly unengaging characters living out unremarkable lives. Realistically depicted, sure, but please Ms, I want more.
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